"Here, gimme this baby to once," gabbled Josephine in the thick speech of her kind.
Maria looked at her. "The time isn't up, and you know it isn't, Josephine," said she. "I just passed by a clock in Melvin & Adams's jewelry store, and it isn't time for me to be on the corner."
"Gimme the baby," demanded Josephine. She attempted to pull the carriage away from Maria, but Maria, although her strength was inferior, had spirit enough to cope with any poor white. Her little fingers clutched like iron. "I shall not give her up until four o'clock," said she. "Go back to the corner."
Josephine's only answer was a tug which dislodged Maria's fingers and hurt her. But Maria came of the stock which believed in trusting the Lord and keeping the powder dry. She was not yet conquered. The right was clearly on her side. She and Josephine had planned to meet at the corner at four o'clock, and it was not quite half-past three, and she had given Josephine half a pound of chocolates. She did not stop to reflect a moment. Maria's impulses were quick, and lack of decision in emergencies was not a failing of hers. She made one dart to the rear of Josephine. Josephine wore her hair in a braided loop, tied with a bow of black ribbon. Maria seized upon this loop of brown braids, and hung. She was enough shorter than Josephine to render it effectual. Josephine's head was bent backward and she was helpless, unless she let go of the baby-carriage. Josephine, however, had good lungs, and she screamed, as she was pulled backward, still holding to the little carriage, which was also somewhat tilted by the whole performance.
"Lemme be, you horrid little thing!" she screamed, "or I'll tell your ma."
"She isn't my mother," said Maria in return. "Let go of my baby."
"She is your ma. Your father married her, and she's your ma, and you can't help yourself. Lemme go, or I'll tell on you."
"Tell, if you want to," said Maria, firmly, actually swinging with her whole weight from Josephine's loop of braids. "Let go my baby."
Josephine screamed again, with her head bent backward, and the baby-carriage tilted perilously. Then a woman, who had been watching from a window near by, rushed upon the scene. She was Gladys Mann's mother. Just as she appeared the baby began to cry, and that accelerated her speed. The windows of her house became filled with staring childish faces. The woman, who was very small and lean but wiry, a bundle of muscles and nerve, ran up to the baby-carriage, and pulled it back to its proper status, and began at once quieting the frightened baby and scolding the girls.
"Hush, hush," cooed she to the baby. "Did it think it was goin' to get hurted?" Then to the girls: "Ain't you ashamed of yourselves, two great girls fightin' right in the street, and most tippin' the baby over. S'posin' you had killed him?"
Then Josephine burst forth in a great wail of wrath and pain. The bringing down of the carriage had increased her agony, for Maria still clung to her hair.
"Oh, oh, oh!" howled Josephine, her head straining back. "She's most killin' me."
"An' I'll warrant you deserve it," said the woman. Then she added to Maria—she was entirely impartial in her scolding—"Let go of her, ain't you shamed." Then to the baby, "Did he think he was goin' to get hurted?"
"He's a girl!" cried Maria in a frenzy of indignation. "He is not a boy, he is a girl." She still clung desperately to Josephine's hair, who in her turn clung to the baby-carriage.
Then Gladys came out of the house, in a miserable, thin, dirty gown, and she was Maria's ally.
"Let that baby go!" she cried to Josephine. She tugged fiercely at Josephine's white skirt.
"Gladys Mann, you go right straight into the house. What be you buttin' in for!" screamed her mother. "You let that girl's hair alone. Josephine, what you been up to. You might have killed this baby."
The baby screamed louder. It wriggled around in its little, white fur nest, and stretched out imploring pink paws from which the mittens had fallen off. Its little lace hood was awry, the pink rosette was cocked over one ear. Maria herself began to cry. Then Gladys waxed fairly fierce. She paid no attention whatever to her mother.
"You jest go round an' ketch on to the kid's wagin," said she, "an' I'll take care of her." With that her strong little hands made a vicious clutch at Josephine's braids.
Maria sprang for the baby-carriage. She straightened the lace hood, she tucked in the fur robe, and put on the mittens. The baby's screams subsided into a grieved whimper. "Did great wicked girls come and plague sister's own little precious?" said Maria. But now she had to reckon with Gladys's mother, who had recovered her equilibrium, lost for a second by her daughter's manoeuvre. She seized in her turn the handle of the baby-carriage, and gave Maria a strong push aside. Then she looked at all three combatants, like a poor-white Solomon.
"Who were sent out with him in the first place, that's what I want to know?" she said.
"I were," replied Josephine in a sobbing shout. Her head was aching as if she had been scalped.
"Shet up!" said Gladys's mother inconsistently.
"Did your ma send her out with him?" she queried of her.
"He is not a boy," replied Maria shiftily.
"Yes, she did," said Josephine, still rubbing her head.
Gladys, through a wholesome fear of her mother, had released her hold on her braids, and stood a little behind.
Mrs. Mann's scanty rough hair blew in the winter wind as she took hold of the carriage. Maria again tucked in the white fur robe to conceal her discomfiture. She was becoming aware that she was being proved in the wrong.
"Shet up!" said Mrs. Mann in response to Josephine's answer. There was not the slightest sense nor meaning in the remark, but it was, so to speak, her household note, learned through the exigency of being in the constant society of so many noisy children. She told everybody, on general principles, to "shet up," even when she wished for information which necessitated the reverse.
Mrs. Mann was thin and meagre, and wholly untidy. The wind lashed her dirty cotton skirt around her, disclosing a dirtier petticoat and men's shoes. The skin of her worn, blond face had a look as if the soil of life had fairly been rubbed into it. All the lines of this face were lax, displaying utter lassitude and no energy. She, however, had her evanescent streaks of life, as now. Once in a while a bubble of ancestral blood seemed to come to the surface, although it soon burst. She had come, generations back, of a good family. She was the run out weed of it, but still, at times, the old colors of the blossom were evident. She turned to Maria.
"If," said she, "your ma sent her out with this young one, I don't see why you went to pullin' her hair fur?"
"I gave her a whole half-pound of chocolates," returned Maria, in a fine glow of indignation, "if she would let me push the baby till four o'clock, and it isn't four o'clock yet."
"It ain't more than half-past three," said Gladys.
"Shet up!" said her mother. She stood looking rather helplessly at the three little girls and the situation. Her suddenly wakened mental faculties were running down like those of a watch which has been shaken to make it go for a few seconds. The situation was too much for her, and, according to her wont, she let it drop. Just then a whiff of strong sweetness came from the house, and her blank face lighted up.
"We are makin' 'lasses candy," said she. "You young ones all come in and hev' some, and I'll take the baby. He can get warm, and a little of thet candy won't do him no harm, nuther." Mrs. Mann used the masculine pronoun from force of habit; all her children with the exception of Gladys were boys.
Maria hesitated. She had a certain scorn for the Manns. She eyed Mrs. Mann's dirty attire and face. But she was in fact cold, and the smell of the candy was entrancing. "She said never to take the baby in anywhere," said she, doubtfully.
Josephine having tired of chocolate, realized suddenly an enormous hunger for molasses candy. She sniffed like a hunting hound. "She didn't say not to go into Mrs. Mann's," said she.
"She said anywhere; I heard her tell you," said Maria.
"Mrs. Mann's ain't anywhere," said Josephine, who had a will of her own. She rushed around and caught up the baby. "She's most froze," said she. "She'll get the croup if she don't get warmed up."
With that, Josephine carrying the baby, Maria, Gladys, and Mrs. Mann all entered the little, squalid Mann house, as hot as a conservatory and reeking with the smell of boiled molasses.
When Josephine and Maria and the baby started out again, Maria turned to Josephine.
"Now," said she, "if you don't let me push her as far as the corner of our street, I'll tell how you took her into Mrs. Mann's. You know what She'll say."
Josephine, whose face was smeared with molasses candy, and who was even then sucking some, relinquished her hold on the carriage. "You'll be awful mean if you do tell," said she.
"I will tell if you don't do what you say you'll do another time," said she.
When they reached home, Ida had not returned, but she came in radiant some few minutes later. She had read a paper on a famous man, for the pleasure and profit of the Edgham Woman's Club, and she had received much applause and felt correspondingly elated. Josephine had taken the baby up-stairs to a little room which had recently been fitted up for a nursery, and, not following her usual custom, Ida went in there after removing her outer wraps. She stood in her blue cloth dress looking at the child with her usual air of radiant aloofness, seeming to shed her own glory, like a star, upon the baby, rather than receive its little light into the loving recesses of her own soul. Josephine and also Maria were in a state of consternation. They had discovered a large, sticky splash of molasses candy on the baby's white embroidered cloak. They had washed the baby's sticky little face, but they did not know what was to be done about the cloak, which lay over a chair. Josephine essayed, with a dexterous gesture, to so fold the cloak over that the stain would be for the time concealed. But Ida Edgham had not been a school-teacher for nothing. She saw the gesture, and immediately took up the cloak herself.
"Why, what is this on her cloak?" said she.
There was a miserable silence.
"It looks like molasses candy. It is molasses candy," said Ida. "Josephine, did you give this child molasses candy?" Ida's voice was entirely even, but there was something terrible about it.
Maria saw Josephine turn white. "She wouldn't have given her the candy if it hadn't been for me," said she.
Ida stood looking from one to the other. Josephine's face was white and scared, Maria's impenetrable.
"If you ever give this child candy again, either of you," said Ida, "you will never take her out again." Then she went out, still smiling.
Josephine looked at Maria with enormous gratitude.
"Say," said she, "you're a dandy."
"You're a cheat!" returned Maria, with scorn.
"I'm awful sorry I didn't wait on the corner till four o'clock, honest."
"You'd better be."
"Say, but you be a dandy," repeated Josephine.
Maria began to be conscious of other and more vital seasons than those of the old earth on which she lived—the seasons of the human soul. Along with her own unconscious and involuntary budding towards bloom, the warm rush of the blood in her own veins, she realized the budding progress of the baby. When little Evelyn was put into short frocks, and her little, dancing feet were shod with leather instead of wool, Maria felt a sort of delicious wonder, similar to that with which she watched a lilac-bush in the yard when its blossoms deepened in the spring.
The day when Evelyn was put into short frocks, Maria glanced across the school-room at Wollaston Lee, and her innocent passion, half romance, half imagination, which had been for a time in abeyance, again thrilled her. All her pulses throbbed. She tried to work out a simple problem in her algebra, but mightier unknown quantities were working towards solution in every beat of her heart. Wollaston shot a sidelong glance at her, and she felt it, although she did not see it. Gladys Mann leaned over her shoulder.
"Say," she whispered, "Wollaston Lee is jest starin' at you!"
Maria gave a little, impatient shrug of her shoulders, although a blush shot over her whole face, and Gladys saw distinctly the back of her neck turn a roseate color.
"He's awful stuck on you, I guess," Gladys said.
Maria shrugged her shoulders again, but she thought of Wollaston and then of the baby in her short frock and she felt that her heart was bursting with joy, as a bud with blossom.
Ida, meantime, was curiously impassive towards her child's attainments. There was something pathetic about this impassiveness. Ida was missing a great deal, and more because she did not even know what she missed. However, she began to be conscious of a settled aversion towards Maria. Her manner towards her was unchanged, but she became distinctly irritated at seeing her about. When anything annoyed Ida, she immediately entertained no doubt whatever that it was not in accordance with the designs of an overruling Providence. It seemed manifest to her that if anything annoyed her, it should be removed. However, in this case, the way of removal did not seem clear for a long time. Harry was undoubtedly fond of Maria. That did not trouble Ida in the least, although she recognized the fact. She was not a woman who was capable of jealousy, because her own love and admiration for herself made her impregnable. She loved herself so much more than Harry could possibly love her that his feeling for Maria did not ruffle her in the least. It was due to no jealousy that she wished Maria removed, at least for a part of the time. It was only that she was always conscious of a dissent, silent and helpless, still persistent, towards her attitude as regarded herself. She knew that Maria did not think her as beautiful and perfect as she thought herself, and the constant presence of this small element of negation irritated her. Then, too, while she was not in the least jealous of her child, she had a curious conviction that Maria cared more for her than she herself cared, and that in itself was a covert reproach. When little Evelyn ran to meet her sister when she returned from school, Ida felt distinctly disturbed. She had no doubt of her ultimate success in her purpose of ridding herself of at least the constant presence of Maria, and in the mean time she continued to perform her duty by the girl, to that outward extent that everybody in Edgham pronounced her a model step-mother. "Maria Edgham never looked half so well in her own mother's time," they said.
Lillian White spoke of it to her mother one Sunday. She had been to church, but her mother had remained at home on account of a cold.
"I tell you she looked dandy," said Lillian. Lillian was still as softly and negatively pretty as ever. She was really charming because she was not angular, because her skin was not thick and coarse, because she did not look anaemic, but perfectly well fed and nourished and happy.
"Who?" asked her mother.
"Maria Edgham. She was togged out to beat the band. Everything looked sort of fadged up that she had before her own mother died. I tell you she never had anything like the rig she wore to-day."
"What was it?" asked her mother interestedly, wiping her rasped nose with a moist ball of handkerchief.
"Oh, it was the handsomest brown suit I ever laid my eyes on, with hand-embroidery, and fur, and a big picture hat trimmed with fur and chrysanthemums. She's an awful pretty little girl anyhow."
"She always was pretty," said Mrs. White, dabbing her nose again.
"If Ida don't look out, her step-daughter will beat her in looks," said Lillian.
"I never thought myself that Ida was anything to brag of, anyway," said Mrs. White. She still had a sense of wondering injury that Harry Edgham had preferred Ida to her Lillian.
Lillian was now engaged to be married, but her mother did not feel quite satisfied with the man. He was employed in a retail clothing establishment in New York, and had only a small salary. "Foster Simpkins" (that was the young man's name) "ain't really what you ought to have," she often said to Lillian.
But Lillian took it easily. She liked the young man very much as she would have liked a sugar-plum, and she thought it high time for her to be married, although she was scarcely turned twenty. "Oh, well, ma," she said. "Men don't grow on every bush, and Foster is real good-lookin', and maybe his salary will be raised."
"You ain't lookin' very high," said her mother.
"No use in strainin' your neck for things out of your own sky," said Lillian, who had at times a shrewd sort of humor, inherited from her father.
"Harry Edgham would have been a better match for you," her mother said.
"Lord, I'd a good sight rather have Foster than another woman's leavin's," replied Lillian. "Then there was Maria, too. It would have been an awful job to dress her, and look out for her."
"That's so," said her mother, "and then the two sets of children, too."
Lillian colored and giggled. "Oh, land, don't talk about children, ma!" said she. "I'm contented as it is. But you ought to have seen that young one to-day."
"What did Ida wear?" asked Mrs. White.
"She wore her black velvet suit, that she had this winter, and the way she strutted up the aisle was a caution."
"I don't see how Harry Edgham lives the way he does," said Mrs. White. "Black velvet costs a lot. Do you s'pose it is silk velvet?"
"I don't see how he does it!"
"He looks sort of worn-out to me. He's grown awful old, I noticed it to-day."
"Well, all Ida cares for is herself. She don't see he's grown old, you can be sure of that," said Mrs. White, with an odd sort of bitterness. Actually the woman was so filled with maternal instincts that the bare dream of Harry as her Lillian's husband had given her a sort of motherly solicitude for him, which she had not lost. "It's a shame," said she.
"Oh, well, it's none of my funeral," said Lillian, easily. She took a chocolate out of a box which her lover had sent her, and began nibbling it like a squirrel.
"Poor man," said Mrs. White. Tears of emotion actually filled her eyes and mingled with the rheum of her cold. She took out her moist ball of handkerchief again and dabbed both her eyes and nose.
Lillian looked at her half amusedly, half affectionately. "Mother, you do beat the Dutch," said she.
Mrs. White actually snivelled. "I can't help remembering the time when his poor first wife died," said she, "and how he and little Maria came here to take their meals, poor souls. Harry Edgham was just the one to be worked by a woman, poor fellow."
Lillian sucked her chocolate with a full sense of its sweetness. "Ma, you can't keep track of all creation, nor cry over it," said she. "You've got to leave it to the Lord. Have you taken your pink pellet?"
"Poor little Maria, too," said Mrs. White.
"Good gracious, ma, don't you take to worryin' over her," said Lillian. "Here's your pink pellet. A young one dressed up the way she was to-day!"
"Dress ain't everything, and nothin' is goin' to make me believe that Ida Slome is a good mother to her, nor to her own child neither. It ain't in her."
Lillian, approaching her mother at the window with the pink pellet and a glass of water, uttered an exclamation. "For the land's sake, there she is now!" she said. "Look, ma, there is Maria in her new suit, and she's got the baby in a little carriage on runners. Just look at the white fur-tails hanging over the back. Ain't that a handsome suit?"
Mrs. White gazed out eagerly. "It must have cost a pile," said she. "I don't see how he does it."
"She sees you at the window," said Lillian.
Both she and her mother smiled and waved at Maria. Maria bowed, and smiled with a sweet irradiation of her rosy face.
"She's a little beauty, anyhow," said Lillian.
"Dear child," said Mrs. White, and she snivelled again.
"Ma, either your cold or the stuff you are takin' is making you dreadful nervous," said Lillian. "You cry at nothin' at all. How straight she is! No stoop about her."
Maria was, in fact, carrying herself with an extreme straightness both of body and soul. She was conscious to the full of her own beauty in her new suit, and of the loveliness of her little sister in her white fur nest of a sledge. She was inordinately proud. She had asked Ida if she might take the child for a little airing before the early Sunday dinner, and Ida had consented easily.
Ida also wished for an opportunity to talk with Harry about her cherished scheme, and preferred doing so when Maria was not in the house. For manifest reasons, too, Sunday was the best day on which to approach her husband on a subject which she realized was a somewhat delicate one. She was not so sure of his subservience when Maria was concerned, as in everything else, and Sunday was the day when his nerves were less strained, when he had risen late. Ida did not insist upon his going to church, as his first wife had done. In fact, if the truth was told, Harry wore his last winter's overcoat this year, and she was a little doubtful about its appearance in conjunction with her new velvet costume. He sat in the parlor when Ida entered after Maria had gone out with Evelyn. Harry looked at her admiringly.
"How stunning you do look in that velvet dress!" he said.
Ida laughed consciously. "I rather like it myself," said she. "It's a great deal handsomer than Mrs. George Henderson's, and I know she had hers made at a Fifth Avenue tailor's, and it must have cost twice as much."
Ida had filled Harry with the utmost faith in her financial management. While he was spending more than he had ever done, and working harder, he was innocently unconscious of it. He felt a sense of gratitude and wonder that Ida was such a good manager and accomplished such great results with such a small expenditure. He was unwittingly disloyal to his first wife. He remembered the rigid economy under her sway, and owned to himself, although with remorseful tenderness, that she had not been such a financier as this woman. "You ought to go on Wall Street," he often told Ida. He gazed after her now with a species of awe that he had such a splendid, masterful creature for his wife, as she moved with the slow majesty habitual to her out of the room, the black plumes on her hat softly floating, the rich draperies of her gown trailing in sumptuous folds of darkness.
When she came down again, in a rose-colored silk tea-gown trimmed with creamy lace, she was still more entrancing. She brought with her into the room an atmosphere of delicate perfume. Harry had stopped smoking entirely nowadays. Ida had persuaded him that it was bad for him. She had said nothing about the expense, as his first wife had been accustomed to do. Therefore there was no tobacco smoke to dull his sensibilities to this delicate perfume. It was as if a living rose had entered the room. Ida sank gracefully into a chair opposite him. She was wondering how she could easily lead up to the subject in her mind. There was much diplomacy, on a very small and selfish scale, about Ida. She realized the expediency of starting from apparently a long distance, to establish her sequences in order to maintain the appearance of unpremeditativeness.
"Isn't it a little too warm here, dear?" said she, presently, in the voice which alone she could not control. Whenever she had an entirely self-centred object in mind, an object which might possibly meet with opposition, as now, her voice rang harsh and lost its singing quality.
Harry did not seem to notice it. He started up immediately. The portieres between the room and the vestibule were drawn. He had, in fact, felt somewhat chilly. It was a cold day, and he had a touch of the grip. "I will open the portieres, dear," he said. "I dare say you are right."
"I noticed it when I first came in," said Ida. "I meant to draw the portieres apart myself, but going out through the library I forgot it. Thank you, dear. How is your cold?"
"It is nothing, dear," replied Harry. "There is only a little soreness in my throat."
He resumed his seat, and noticed the fragrance of roasted chicken coming through the parted portieres from the kitchen. Harry was very fond of roasted chicken. He inhaled that and the delicate perfume of Ida's garments and hair. He regarded her glowing beauty with affection which had no taint of sensuality. Harry had more of a poetic liking for sweet odors and beauty than a sensual one.
Harry Edgham in these days had a more poetic and spiritual look than formerly. He had not lost his strange youthfulness of expression; it was as if a child had the appearance of having been longer on the earth. His hair had thinned, and receded from his temples, and the bold, almost babyish fulness of his temples was more evident. His face was thinner, too, and he had not much color. His mouth was drawn down at the corner, and he frowned slightly, as a child might, in helpless but non-aggressive dissent. His worn appearance was very noticeable, in spite of his present happy mood, of which his wife shrewdly took advantage.
Ida Edgham did not care for books, although she never admitted that fact, but she could read with her cold feminine astuteness the moods and souls of men, with unerring quickness. Those last were to her advantage or disadvantage, and in anything of that nature she was gifted by nature. Ida Edgham might have been, as her husband might have been, a poet, an adventuress, who could have made the success of her age had she not been hindered, as well as aided, by her self-love. She had the shrewdness which prognosticates as well as discerns, and saw the inevitableness of the ultimatum of all irregularities in a world which, however irregular it is in practice, still holds regularity as its model of conduct and progression. Ida Edgham would, in the desperate state of the earth before the flood, have made herself famous. As it was, her irregular talents had a limited field; however, she did all she could. It always seemed to her that, as far as the right and wrong of things went, her own happiness was eminently right, and that it was distinctly wrong for her, or any one else, to oppose any obstacle to it. She allowed the pleasant influences of the passing moment to have their full effect upon her husband, and she continued her leading up to the subject by those easy and apparently unrelated sequences which none but a diplomat could have managed.
"Thank you, dear," she said, when Harry resumed his seat. "The air is cold but very clear and pleasant out to-day," she continued.
"It looks so," said Harry.
"Still, if I were you, I think I would not go out; it might make your cold worse," said Ida.
"No, I think it would be full as well for me to stay in to-day," replied Harry happily. He hemmed a little as he spoke, realizing the tickle in his throat with rather a pleasant sense of importance than annoyance. He stretched himself luxuriously in his chair, and gazed about the warm, perfumed, luxurious apartment.
"You have to go out to-morrow, anyway," said Ida, and she increased his sense of present comfort by that remark.
"That is so," said Harry, with a slight sigh.
Lately it had seemed harder than ever before for him to start early in the black winter mornings and hurry for his train. Then, too, he had what he had never had before, a sense of boredom, of ennui, so intense that it was almost a pain. The deadly monotony of it wearied him. For the first time in his life his harness of duty chafed his spirit. He was so tired of seeing the same train, the same commuters, taking the same path across the station to the ferry-boat, being jostled by the same throng, going to the same office, performing the same, or practically the same, duties, that his very soul was irritated. He had reached a point where he not only needed but demanded a change, but the change was as impossible, without destruction, as for a planet to leave its orbit.
Ida saw the deepening of the frown on his forehead and the lengthening of the lines around his mouth.
"Poor old man!" said she. "I wish I had a fortune to give you, so you wouldn't have to go."
The words were fairly cooing, but the tone was still harsh. However, Harry brightened. He regarded this lovely, blooming creature and inhaled again the odor of dinner, and reflected with a sense of gratitude upon his mercies. Harry had a grateful heart, and was always ready to blame himself.
"Oh, I should be lost, go all to pieces, if I quit work," he said, laughing. "If I were left a fortune, I should land in an insane asylum very likely, or take to drink. No, dear, you can't teach such an old bird new tricks; he's been in one tree too long, summer and winter."
"Well, after all, you have not got to go out to-day," remarked Ida, skilfully, and Harry again stretched himself with a sense of present comfort.
"That is so, dear," he said.
"I have something you like for supper, too," said Ida, "and I think George Adams and Louisa may drop in and we can have some music."
Harry brightened still more. He liked George Adams, and the wife had more than a talent for music, of which Harry was passionately fond. She played wonderfully on Ida's well-tuned grand piano.
"I thought you might like it," said Ida, "and I spoke to Louisa as I was coming out of church."
"You were very kind, sweetheart," Harry said, and again a flood of gratitude seemed to sweeten life for the man.
Ida took another step in her sequence.
"I think Maria had better stay up, if they do come," said she. "She enjoys music so much. She can keep on her new gown. Maria is so careful of her gowns that I never feel any anxiety about her soiling them."
"She is just like—" began Harry, then he stopped. He had been about to state that Maria was just like her mother in that respect, but he had remembered suddenly that he was speaking to his second wife.
However, Ida finished his remark for him with perfect good-nature. She had not the slightest jealousy of Harry's first wife, only a sort of contempt, that she had gotten so little where she herself had gotten so much.
"Maria's own mother was very particular, wasn't she, dear?" she said.
"Very," replied Harry.
"Maria takes it from her, without any doubt," Ida said, smoothly. "She looked so sweet in that new gown to-day, that I would like to have the Adamses see her without her coat to-night; and Maria looks even prettier without her hat, too, her hair grows so prettily on her temples. Maria grows lovelier every day, it seems to me. I don't know how many I saw looking at her in church this morning."
"Yes, she is going to be pretty, I guess," said Harry, and again his very soul seemed warm and light with pleasure and gratitude.
"She is pretty," said Ida, conclusively. "She is at the awkward age, too. But there is no awkwardness about Maria. She is like a little fairy."
Harry beamed upon her. "She is as proud as punch when she gets a chance to take the little one out, and they made a pretty picture going down the street," said he, "but I hope she won't catch cold. Is that new suit warm?"
"Oh yes! it is interlined. I looked out for that."
"You look out for my child as if she were your own, bless you, dear," Harry said, affectionately.
Then Ida thought that the time for her carefully-led-up-to coup had arrived. "I try to," said she, meekly.
Ida began to speak, then she hesitated, with timid eyes on her husband's face.
"What is it, dear?" asked he.
"Well, I have been thinking a good deal lately about Maria and her associates in school here."
"Why, what is the matter with them?" Harry asked, uneasily.
"Oh, I don't know that there is anything very serious the matter with them, but Maria is at an age when she is very impressible, and there are many who are not exactly desirable. There is Gladys Mann, for instance. I saw Maria walking down the street with her the other day. Now, Harry, you know that Gladys Mann is not exactly the kind of girl whom Maria's own mother would have chosen for an intimate friend for her."
"You are right," Harry said, frowning.
"Well, I have been thinking over the number of pupils of both sexes in the school who can be called degenerates, either in mind or morals, and I must say I was alarmed."
"Well, what is to be done?" asked Harry, moodily. "Maria must go to school, of course."
"Yes, of course, Maria must have a good education, as good as if her own mother had lived."
"Well, what is to be done, then?"
Then Ida came straight to the point. "The only way I can see is to remove her from doubtful associates."
"Remove her?" repeated Harry, blankly.
"Yes; send her away to school. Wellbridge Hall, in Emerson, where I went myself, would be a very good school. It is not expensive."
Harry stared. "But, Ida, she is too young."
"Not at all."
"You were older when you went there."
"A little older."
"How far is Emerson from here?"
"Only a night's journey from New York. You go to sleep in your berth, and in the morning you are there. You could always see her off. It is very easy."
"Send Maria away! Ida, it is out of the question. Aside from anything else, there is the expense. I am living up to my income as it is."
"Oh," said Ida—she gave her head a noble toss, and spoke impressively—"I am prepared to go without myself to make it possible for you to meet her bills. You know I spoke the other day of a new lace dress. Well, that would cost at least a hundred; I will go without that. And I wanted some new portieres for my room; I will go without them. That means, say, fifty more. And you know the dining-room rug looks very shabby. I was thinking we must have an Eastern rug, which would cost at least one hundred and fifty; I thought it would pay in the end. Well, I am prepared to give that up and have a domestic, which only costs twenty-five; that is a hundred and twenty-five more saved. And I had planned to have my seal-skin coat made over after Christmas, and you know you cannot have seal-skin touched under a hundred; there is a hundred more. There are three hundred and seventy-five saved, which will pay for Maria's tuition for a year, and enough over for travelling expenses." Nothing could have exceeded the expression of lofty virtue of Ida Edgham when she concluded her speech. As for her own selfish considerations, those, as always, she thought of only as her duty. Ida established always a clear case of conscience in all her dealings for her own interests.
But Harry continued to frown. The childish droop of his handsome mouth became more pronounced. "I don't like the idea," he said, quite sturdily for him.
"Suppose we leave it to Maria," said Ida.
"I really think," said Harry, in almost a fretful tone, "that you exaggerate. I hardly think there is anything so very objectionable about her associates here. I will admit that many of the children come from what we call the poor whites, but after all their main vice is shiftlessness, and Maria is not very likely to become contaminated with that."
"Why, Harry, my dear, that is the very least of their vices."
"Why, you know that they are notoriously light-fingered."
"My dear Ida, you don't mean to say that you think Maria—"
"Why, of course not, Harry, but aside from that, their morals."
Harry rose from his chair and walked across the room nervously.
"My dear Ida," he said, "you are exaggerating now. Maria is simply not that kind of a girl; and, besides, I don't know that she does see so much of those people, anyway."
"Well, I never heard any harm of that poor little runt. On the other side, Ida, I should think Maria's influence over her for good was to be taken into consideration."
"I hope you don't mean Maria to be a home missionary?" said Ida.
"She might go to school for a worse purpose," replied Harry, simply. "Maria has a very strong character from her mother, if not from her father. I actually think the chances are that the Mann girl will have a better chance of getting good from Maria than Maria evil from her."
"Well, dear, suppose we leave it to Maria herself," said Ida. "Nobody is going to force the dear child away against her will, of course."
"Very well," said Harry. His face still retained a slightly sulky, disturbed expression.
Ida, after a furtive glance at him, took up a sheet of the Sunday paper, and began swaying back and forth gracefully in her rocking-chair, as she read it.
"How foolish all this sentiment about that murderer in the Tombs is," said she presently. "They are actually going to give him a Christmas-tree."
"He is only a boy," said Harry absently.
"I know that—but the idea!"
Just then Maria passed the window, dragging little Evelyn in her white sledge. Ida rose with a motion of unusual quickness for her, but Harry stopped her as she was about to leave the room.
"Don't go out, Ida," he said, with a peremptoriness which sat strangely upon him.
Ida stared at him. "Why, why not?" she asked. "I wanted to take Evelyn out. You know Josephine is not here."
"She is getting out all right with Maria's help; sit down, Ida," said Harry, still with that tone of command which was so foreign to him.
Ida hesitated a second, then she sat down. She realized the grace and policy of yielding in a minor point, when she had a large one in view. Then, too, she was in reality rather vulnerable to a sudden attack, for a moment, although she was always as a rule sure of ultimate victory. She was at a loss, moreover, to comprehend Harry's manner, which was easily enough understood. He wished to be the first to ascertain Maria's sentiments with regard to going away to school. Without admitting it even to himself, he distrusted his wife's methods and entire frankness.
Presently Maria entered, leading little Evelyn, who was unusually sturdy on her legs for her age. She walked quite steadily, with an occasional little hop and skip of exuberant childhood.
She could talk a little, in disconnected sentences, with fascinating mistakes in the sounds of letters, but she preferred a gurgle of laughter when she was pleased, and a wail of woe when things went wrong. She was still in the limbos of primitivism. She was young with the babyhood of the world. To-day she danced up to her father with her little thrill of laughter, at once as meaningless and as full of meaning as the trill of a canary. She pursed up her little lips for a kiss, she flung frantic arms of adoration around his neck. She clung to him, when he lifted her, with all her little embracing limbs; she pressed her lovely, cool, rosy cheek against his, and laughed again.
"Now go and kiss mamma," said Harry.
But the baby resisted with a little, petulant murmur when he tried to set her down. She still clung to him. Harry whispered in her ear.
"Go and kiss mamma, darling."
But Evelyn shook her head emphatically against his face. Maria, almost as radiant in her youth as the child, stood behind her. She glanced uneasily at Ida. She held the white fur robes and wraps which she had brought in from the sledge.
"Take those things out and let Emma put them away, dear," Ida said to her. She smiled, but her voice still retained its involuntary harshness.
Maria obeyed with an uneasy glance at little Evelyn. She knew that her step-mother was angry because the baby would not kiss her. When she was out in the dining-room, giving the fluffy white things to the maid, she heard a shriek, half of grief, half of angry dissent, from the baby. She immediately ran back into the parlor. Ida was removing the child's outer garments, smiling as ever, and with seeming gentleness, but Maria had a conviction that her touch on the tender flesh of the child was as the touch of steel. Little Evelyn struggled to get to her sister when she saw her, but Ida held her firmly.
"Stand still, darling," she said. It was inconceivable how she could say darling without the loving inflection which alone gave the word its full meaning.
"Stand still and let mamma take off baby's things," said Harry, and there was no lack of affectionate cadences in his voice. He privately thought that he himself could have taken off the child's wraps better than his wife, but he recognized her rights in the matter. Harry remembering his first wife, with her child, was in a state of constant bewilderment at the sight of his second with hers. He had always had the masculine opinion that women, in certain primeval respects, were cut on one pattern, and his opinion was being rudely shaken.
"Call Emma, please," said Ida to Maria, and Maria obeyed.
When the maid came in, Ida directed her to take the child up-stairs and put on another frock.
Maria was about to follow, but Harry stopped her. "Maria," said he.
Maria stopped, and eyed her father with surprise.
"Maria," said Harry, bluntly, "your mother and I have been talking about your going away to school."
Maria turned slightly pale and continued to stare at him, but she said nothing.
"She thinks, and I don't know but she is right," said Harry, with painful loyalty, "that your associates here are not just the proper ones for you, and that it would be much better for you to go to boarding-school."
"How much would it cost?" asked Maria, in a dazed voice. The question sounded like her own mother.
"Father can manage that; you need not trouble yourself about that," replied Harry, hurriedly.
"Where?" said Maria, then.
"To a nice school where your mother was educated."
"Ida—to Wellbridge Hall."
"How often should I come home and see you and Evelyn? Every week?"
"I am afraid not, dear," said Harry, uneasily.
"How long are the terms?" asked Maria.
"Only about twelve weeks," said Ida.
Maria stood staring from one to the other. Her face had turned deadly pale, and had, moreover, taken on an expression of despair and isolation. Somehow, although the little girl was only a few feet from the others, she had a look as if she were leagues off, as if she were outside something vital, which removed her, in fact, to immeasurable distances. And, in fact, Maria had a feeling which never afterwards wholly left her, of being outside the love of life in which she had hitherto dwelt with confidence.
"Maybe you would like it, dear," Harry said, feebly.
"I will go," Maria said, in a choking voice. Then she turned without another word and went out of the room, up-stairs to her own little chamber. When there she sat down beside the window. She did not think. She did not seem to feel her hands and feet. It was as if she had fallen from a height. The realization that her father and his new wife wanted to send her away, that she was not wanted in her home, stunned her.
But in a moment the door was flung open and her father entered. He knelt down beside Maria and pulled her head to his shoulder and kissed her, and she felt with a sort of dull wonder his face damp against her own.
"Father's little girl!" said Harry. "Father's own little girl! Father's blessing! Did she think he wanted to send her away? I rather guess he didn't. How would father get along without his own precious baby, when he came home at night. She shan't go one step. She needn't fret a bit about it."
Maria turned and regarded him with a frozen look still on her face. "It was She that wanted me to go?" she said, interrogatively.
"She thought maybe it would be best for you, darling," said Harry. "She means to do right by you, Maria; you must try to think so."
Maria said nothing.
"But father isn't going to let you go," said Harry. "He can't do without his little girl."
Then Maria's strange calm broke up. She clung, weeping, to her father, as if he were her only stay. Harry continued to soothe her.
"Father's blessing!" he whispered in her ear. "She was the best little girl that ever was. She is just like her own dear mother."
"I wish mother was back," Maria whispered, her whisper stifled against his ear.
"Oh, my God, so do I!" Harry said, with a half sob. For the minute the true significance of his position overwhelmed him. He felt a regret, a remembrance, that was a passion. He realized, with no disguise, what it all meant: that he a man with the weakness of a child in the hands of a masterly woman, had formerly been in the leading-strings of love for himself, for his own best good, whereas he was now in the grasp of the self-love of another who cared for him only as he promoted her own interests. In a moment, however, he recovered himself. After all, he had a sense of loyalty and duty which amounted to positive strength. He put Maria gently from him with another kiss.
"Well, this won't bring your mother back, dear," he said, "and God took her away, you know, and what He does is for the best; and She means to do her duty by you, you know, dear. She thought it would be better for you, but father can't spare you, that's all there is about it."
It was an utter impossibility for Ida Edgham to be entirely balked of any purpose which she might form. There was something at once impressive and terrible about the strength of this beautiful, smiling creature's will, about its silence, its impassibility before obstacles, its persistency. It was as inevitable and unswervable as an avalanche or a cyclone. People might shriek out against it and struggle, but on it came, a mighty force, overwhelming petty things as well as great ones. It really seemed a pity, taking into consideration Ida's tremendous strength of character, that she had not some great national purpose upon which to exert herself, instead of such trivial domestic ones.
Ida realized that she could not send Maria to the school which she had proposed. Her strength had that subtlety which acknowledges its limitations and its closed doors, and can look about for other means and ways. Therefore, when Harry came down-stairs that Sunday afternoon, his face working with emotion but his eyes filled with a steady light, and said, with no preface, "It's no use talking, Ida, that child does not want to go, and she shall never be driven from under my roof, while I live," Ida only smiled, and replied, "Very well, dear, I only meant it for her good."
"She is not going," Harry said doggedly.
Harry resumed his seat with a gesture of defiance which was absurd, from its utter lack of any response from his wife. It was like tilting with a windmill.
Ida continued to sway gently back and forth, and smile.
"I think if the Adamses do come in to-night we will have a little salad, there will be enough left from the chicken, and some cake and tea," she observed presently. "We won't have the table set, because both the maids have asked to go out, but Maria can put on my India muslin apron and pass the things. I will have the salad made before they go, and I will make the tea. We can have it on the table in here." Ida indicated, by a graceful motion of her shoulder, a pretty little tea-table loaded with Dresden china.
"All right," replied Harry, with a baffled tone. He felt baffled without knowing exactly why.
Ida took up another sheet of the Herald, a fashion page was uppermost. She read something and smiled. "It says that gowns made like Maria's new one are the most fetching ones of the season," she said. "I am so glad I have the skirt plaited."
Harry made a gesture of assent. He felt, without in the least knowing why, like a man who had been completely worsted in a hand-to-hand combat. He felt humiliated and unhappy. His first wife, even with her high temper and her ready tongue, had never caused him such a sense of abjectness. He had often felt angry with her, but never with himself. She had never really attacked his self-respect as this woman did. He did not dare look up from his newspaper for a while, for he realized that he should experience agony at seeing the beautiful, radiant face of his second wife opposite him instead of the worn, stern, but altogether loving and single-hearted face of his first. He was glad when Maria came down-stairs, and looked up and greeted her with a smile of reassuring confidence. Maria's pretty little face was still tear-stained, although she had bathed it with cold water. She also took up a sheet of the Sunday paper.
"Did you see Alice Lundy's new hat in church to-day, dear?" Ida presently asked her, and her manner was exactly as if nothing had occurred to disturb anybody.
Maria looked at her with a sort of wonder, which made her honest face almost idiotic.
"No, ma'am," said she.
Maria had been taught to say "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am" by her own mother, whose ideas of etiquette were old-fashioned, and dated from the precepts of her own childhood.
"It is a little better not to say ma'am," said Ida, sweetly. "I think that expression is not used so much as formerly."
Maria looked at her with a quick defiance, which gave her an almost startling resemblance to her own mother.
"Yes, ma'am," said she.
Harry's mouth twitched behind his paper. Ida said no more. She continued to smile, but she was not reading the paper which she held. She was making new plans to gain her own ends. She was seeking new doors of liberty for her own ways, in lieu of those which she saw were closed to her, and by the time dinner was served she was quite sure that she had succeeded.
The next autumn, Maria began attending the Elliot Academy, in Wardway. The Elliot Academy was an endowed school of a very high standing, and Wardway was a large town, almost a city, about fifteen miles from Edgham. When this plan was broached by Ida, Maria did not make any opposition; she was secretly delighted. Wollaston Lee was going to the Elliot Academy that autumn, and there was another Edgham girl and her brother, besides Maria, who were going.
"Now, darling, you need not go to the Elliot Academy any more than to the other school she proposed, if you don't want to," Harry told Maria, privately, one Saturday afternoon in September, shortly before the term began.
Ida had gone to her club, and Harry had come home early from the city, and he and Maria were alone in the parlor. Evelyn was having her nap up-stairs. A high wind was roaring about the house. A cherry-tree beside the house was fast losing its leaves in a yellow rain. In front of the window, a hydrangea bush, tipped with magnificent green-and-rosy plumes, swayed in all its limbs like a living thing. Somewhere up-stairs a blind banged.
"I think I would like to go," Maria replied, hurriedly. Then she jumped up. "That blind will wake Evelyn," she said, and ran out of the room.
She had colored unaccountably when her father spoke. When she returned, she had a demure, secretive expression on her face which made Harry stare at her in bewilderment. All his life Harry Edgham had been helpless and bewildered before womenkind, and now his little daughter was beginning to perplex him. She sat down and took up a piece of fancy-work, and her father continued to glance at her furtively over his paper. Presently he spoke of the academy again.
"You need not go if you do not want to," he repeated.
Then again Maria's delicate little face and neck became suffused with pink. Her reply was not as loud nor more intelligible than the murmur of the trees outside in the wind.
"What did you say, darling?" asked Harry. "Father did not understand."
"I would like to go there," Maria replied, in her sweet, decisive little pipe. A fresh wave of color swept over her face and neck, and she selected with great care a thread from a skein of linen floss.
"Well, she thought you might like that," Harry said, with an air of relief.
"Maud Page is going, too," said Maria.
"Is she? That will be nice. You won't have to go back and forth alone," said Harry.
Maria said nothing; she continued her work.
Her father turned his paper and looked at the stock-list. Once he had owned a hundred shares of one of the Industrials. He had long since sold out, not at a loss, but the stock had risen since. He always noted it with an odd feeling of proprietorship, in spite of not owning any. He saw with pride that it had advanced half a point.
Maria worked silently; and as she worked she dreamed, and the dream was visible on her face, had any one been astute enough to understand it. She was working a lace collar to wear with a certain blue blouse, and upon that flimsy keystone was erecting an air-castle. She was going to the Elliot Academy, wearing the blue blouse and the lace collar, and looking so lovely that Wollaston Lee worshipped her. She invented little love-scenes, love-words, and caresses. She blushed, and dimples appeared at the corners of her mouth, the blue light of her eyes under her downcast lids was like the light of living gems. She viewed with complacency her little, soft white hands plying the needle. Maria had hands like a little princess. She cast a glance at the toe of her tiny shoe. She remembered how somebody had told her to keep her shoulders straight, and she threw them back with a charming motion, as if they had been wings. She was entirely oblivious of her father's covert glances. She was solitary, isolated in the crystal of her own thoughts. Presently, Evelyn woke and cried, and Maria roused herself with a start and ran up-stairs. Soon the two came into the room, Evelyn dancing with the uncertain motion of a winged seed on a spring wind. She was charming. One round cheek was more deeply flushed than the other, and creased with the pillow. Her yellow hair, fine and soft and full of electric life, tossed like a little crest. She ran with both fat little hands spread palms outward, and pounced violently upon her father. Harry rolled her about on his knee, and played with her as if she had been a kitten. Maria stood by laughing. The child was fairly screaming with mirth.
A graceful figure passed the window, its garments tightly wrapped by the wind, flying out like a flag behind. Harry set the little girl down at once.
"Here is mamma coming," said he. "Go to sister and she will show you the pictures in the book papa brought home the other day."
Evelyn obeyed. She was a docile little thing, and she had a fear of her mother without knowing why. She was sitting beside Maria, looking demurely at the pictures which her sister pointed out to her, when Ida entered.
"See the horsey running away," said Maria. Then she added in a whisper, "Go and kiss mamma, baby."
The child hesitated, then she rose, and ran to her mother, who stooped her radiant face over her and kissed her coolly.
"Have you been a good little girl?" asked she. Ida was looking particularly self-satisfied to day, and more disposed consequently to question others as to their behavior.
"Yeth," replied Evelyn, without the slightest hesitation. A happy belief in her own merits was an inheritance from her mother. As yet it was more charming than otherwise, for the baby had unquestionable merits in which to believe. Harry and Maria laughed.
"Mamma is very glad," said Ida. She did not laugh; she saw no humor in it. She turned to Harry. "I think I will go in on the early train with you to-morrow, dear," she said. "I want to see about Maria's new dress." Then she turned to Maria. "I have been in to see Miss Keeler," said she, "and she says she can make it for you next week, so you can have it when you begin school. I thought of brown with a touch of blue and burnt-orange. How would you like that?"
"I think that would be perfectly lovely," said Maria with enthusiasm. She cast a grateful look at her step-mother, almost a look of affection. She was always very grateful to Ida for her new clothes, and just now clothes had a more vital interest for her than ever. She took another stitch in her collar, with Evelyn leaning against her and kicking out first one chubby leg, then the other, and she immediately erected new air-castles, in which she figured in her brown suit with the touches of burnt-orange and blue.
A week later, when she started on the train for Wardway in her new attire, she felt entirely satisfied with herself and life in general. She was conscious of looking charming in her new suit of brown, with the touches of blue and burnt-orange, and her new hat, also brown with blue and burnt-orange glimpses in the trimmings. Wollaston Lee got on the same car and sat behind her. Maud Page, the other Edgham girl who was going to the academy, had a cousin in Wardway, and had gone there the night before. There were only Maria, Wollaston, and Edwin Shaw, who sat by himself in a corner, facing the other passengers with a slightly shamed, sulky expression. He was very tall, and had blacked his shoes well, and the black light from them seemed to him obtrusive, the more so because his feet were very large. He looked out of the window as the train left the station, and saw a very pretty little child with a fluff of yellow hair, carrying a big doll, climbing laboriously on a train on the other track, with the tender assistance of a brakeman. She was in the wake of a very stout woman, who stumbled on her skirts going up the steps. Edwin Shaw thought that the child looked like Maria's little sister, but that she could not be, because the stout woman was a stranger to him. Then he thought no more about it. He gazed covertly at Maria, with the black sparkles of his shoes continuing to disturb him. He admired Maria. Presently he saw Wollaston Lee lean over the back of her seat and say something to her, and saw her half turn and dimple, and noticed how the lovely rose flushed the curve of her cheek, and he scowled at his shiny shoes.
As for Maria, when she felt the boy's warm breath on her neck, her heart beat fast. She realized herself on the portals of an air-castle.
"Well, glad you are going to leave this old town?" said Wollaston.
"I am not going to leave it, really," replied Maria.
"Oh, of course not, but you are going to leave the old school, anyhow. I had got mighty tired of it, hadn't you?"
"Yes, I had, rather."
"It's behind the times," said the boy; and, as he spoke he himself looked quite up to the times. He had handsome, clearly cut features and black eyes, which seemed at the same time to demand and question. He had something of a supercilious air, although the expression of youthful innocence and honesty was still evident on his face. He wore a new suit as well as Maria, only his was gray instead of brown, and he wore a red carnation in his button-hole. Maria inhaled the clovy fragrance of it. At the next station more passengers got into the train, and Wollaston seized upon that excuse to ask to share Maria's seat. They talked incessantly—an utterly foolish gabble like that of young birds. An old gentleman across the aisle cast an impatient glance at them from time to time. Finally he arose stiffly and went into the smoker. Their youth and braggadocio of innocence and ignorance, and the remembrance of his own, irritated him. He did not in the least regret his youth, but the recollection of the first stages of his life, now that he was so near the end, was like looking backward over a long road, which had led to absurdly different goals from what he had imagined. It all seemed inconceivable, silly and futile to him, what he had done, and what they were doing. He cast a furious glance at them as he passed out, but neither noticed it. Wollaston said something, and Maria laughed an inane little giggle which was still musical, and trilled through the car. Maria's cheeks were burning, and she seldom looked at the boy at her side, but oftener at the young autumn landscape through which they were passing. The trees had scarcely begun to turn, but here and there one flamed out like a gold or red torch among the green, and all the way-sides were blue and gold with asters and golden-rod. It was a very warm morning for the season. When they stopped at one of the stations, a yellow butterfly flew in through an open window and flitted airily about the car. Maria removed her coat, with the solicitous aid of her companion. She cast a conscious glance at the orange and blue on her sleeves.
"Say, that dress is a stunner!" whispered Wollaston.
Maria laughed happily. "Glad you like it," said she.
Before they reached Wardway, Wollaston's red carnation was fastened at one side of her embroidered vest, making a discord of color which, for Maria, was a harmony of young love and romance.
"That is the academy," said Wollaston, as the train rolled into Wardway. He pointed to a great brick structure at the right—a main building flanked by enormous wings. "Are you frightened?" he asked.
"I guess not," replied Maria, but she was.
"You needn't be a bit," said the boy. "I know some of the boys that go there, and I went to see the principal with father. He's real pleasant. I know the Latin teacher, Miss Durgin, too. My Uncle Frank married her cousin, and she has been to my house. You'll be in her class." Wollaston spoke with a protective warmth for which Maria was very grateful.
She had a very successful although somewhat confused day. She was asked this and that and led hither and yon, and so surrounded by strange faces and sights that she felt fairly dizzy. She felt more herself at luncheon, when she sat beside Maud Page in the dining-hall, with Wollaston opposite. There was a restaurant attached to the academy, for the benefit of the out-of-town pupils.
When Maria went down to the station to take her train for home, Maud Page was there, and Wollaston. There was a long time to wait. They went out in a field opposite and picked great bunches of golden-rod, and the girls pinned them on their coats. Edwin Shaw was lingering about the station when they returned, but he was too shy to speak to them. When the train at last came in, Maria, with a duplicity which shamed her in thinking of it afterwards, managed to get away from Maud, and enter the car at the same time with Wollaston, who seated himself beside her as a matter of course. It was still quite light, but it had grown cold. Everything had a cold look—the clear cowslip sky, with its reefs of violet clouds; even the trees tossed crisply, as if stiffened with cold.
"Hope we won't have a frost," said Wollaston, as they got off at Edgham.
"I hope not," said Maria; and then Gladys Mann ran up to her, crying out:
"Say, Maria, Maria, did you know your little sister was lost?"
Maria turned deadly white. Wollaston caught hold of her little arm in its brown sleeve.
"When was she lost?" he asked, fiercely, of Gladys. "Don't you know any better than to rush right at anybody with such a thing as that? Don't you be frightened, Maria. I'll find her."
A little knot of passengers from the train gathered around them. Gladys was pale herself, and had a strong sense of the sadness of the occasion, still she had a feeling of importance. Edwin Shaw came lumbering up timidly, and Maud Page pressed quickly to Maria's side with a swirl of her wide skirts.
"Gladys Mann, what on earth are you talking about?" said she, sharply. "Who's lost?"
"Maria's little sister."
"Hm! I don't believe a word of it."
"She is, so there! Nobody has seen a sign of her since morning, and Maria's pa's most crazy. He's been sending telegrams all round. Maria's step-mother, she telegraphed for him to come home, and he come at noon, and he sent telegrams all round, and then he went himself an hour ago."
"Back to New York. Guess he's gone huntin' himself. Guess he thought he could hunt better than policemen. Maria's step-mother don't act scared, but I guess she is, awful. My mummer says that folks that bear up the best are the ones that feel things most. My mummer went over to see if she could do anything and see how she took it."
"When was she lost?" gasped Maria. She was shaking from head to foot.
"Your step-mother went down to the store, and when she got back the baby was gone. Josephine said she hadn't seen her after you had started for Wardway. She took her doll with her."
"Where?" gasped Maria.
"Nobody knows where," said Gladys, severely, although the tears were streaming down her own grimy cheeks. "She wouldn't be lost, would she, if folks knew where she was? Nothin' ain't never lost when you know where it is unless you drop it down a well, and you 'ain't got no well, have you, Maria Edgham?"
"No," said Maria. She was conscious of an absurd thankfulness and relief that she had no well.
"And there ain't no pond round here big enough to drown a baby kitten, except that little mud-puddle up at Fisher's, and they've dragged every inch of that. I see 'em."
All this time Edwin Shaw had been teetering on uncertain toes on the borders of the crowd. He remembered the child with the doll whom he had seen climbing into the New York train in the morning, and he was eager to tell of it, to make himself of importance, but he was afraid. After all, the child might not have been Evelyn. There were so many little, yellow-haired things with dolls to be seen about, and then there was the stout woman to be accounted for. Edwin never doubted that the child had been with the stout woman whom he had seen stumbling over her voluminous skirts up the car steps. At last he stepped forward and spoke, with a moist blush overspreading his face, toeing in and teetering with embarrassment.
"Say," he began.
The attention of the whole company was at once riveted upon him. He wriggled; the blood looked as if it would burst through his face. Great drops of perspiration stood upon his forehead. He stammered when he spoke. He caught a glimpse of Maria's blue-and-orange trimmings, and looked down, and again the black light of his shoes, which all the dust of the day had not seemed to dim, flashed in his eyes. He came of a rather illiterate family with aspirations, and when he was nervous he had a habit of relapsing into the dialect in common use in his own home, regardless of his educational attainments. He did so now.
"I think she has went to New York," he said.
"Who?" demanded Wollaston, eagerly. His head was up like a hunting hound; he kept close hold of Maria's little arm.
"Her little sister-in-law." Edwin pointed to Maria.
Gladys Mann went peremptorily up to Edwin Shaw, seized his coat-collar, and shook him. "For goodness sake! when did she went?" she demanded. "When did you see her? If you know anythin', tell it, an' not stand thar like a fool!"
"I saw a little girl jest about her size, a-carryin' of a doll, that clim on the New York train jest as we went out this mornin'," replied Edwin with a gasp, as if the information were wrung from him by torture. "And she was with a awful fat woman. Leastways—"
"A fat woman!" cried Wollaston Lee. "Who was the fat woman?"
"I hadn't never saw her afore. She was awful fat, and was a steppin' on her dress."
Wollaston was keen-witted, and he immediately grasped at the truth of the matter.
"You idiot!" he said. "What makes you think she was with the stout woman—just because she was climbing into the train after her?"
"Little girls don't never go to New York alone with dolls," vouchsafed Edwin, more idiotically than ever. "Leastways—"
"If you don't stop saying leastways, I'll punch your head," said Wollaston. "Are you sure the child was Maria's little sister?"
"Looked like her," said Edwin, shrinking back a little. "Leastways—"
"What was she dressed in?" asked Maria, eagerly.
"I didn't see as she had nothin' on."
"You great gump!" said Gladys, shaking him energetically. "Of course she had something on."
"She had a big doll."
"What did she have on? You answer me this minute!" said Gladys.
"She might have had on a blue dress," admitted Edwin, with a frantic grasp at his memory, "but she didn't have nothin' on her, nohow. Leastways—"
"Oh!" sobbed Maria, "she did wear her little blue dress this morning. She did! Was her hair light?"
"Yes, it were," said Edwin, quite positively. "Leastways—"
"It was Evelyn," sobbed Maria. "Oh, poor little Evelyn, all alone in New York! She never went but once with Her and me, and she wouldn't know where to go. Oh, oh!"
"Where did she go when she went with your step-ma and you?" demanded Gladys, who seemed to have suddenly developed unusual acumen. Her face was streaming with tears but her voice was keen.
"She went to Her cousin's, who lives in an apartment in West Forty-ninth Street," said Maria.
"She'd try to go there again," said Gladys. "Did she know the woman's name?"
"Yes, she did."
"You bet she did. She was an awful bright kid," said Gladys. "Now, I tell you what, Maria, I shouldn't a mite wonder if your step-ma had had a telegram from her cousin by this time, that she was to her house. You'd better jest run home an' see."
"She was only her third cousin," said Maria, "and She hardly ever heard from her. It was only the other day I heard Her say that she didn't know but she had left New York. I don't think Her cousin liked her very well."
"What was the cousin's name?"
"She called her Alice, but her name was Mrs. George B. Edison."
"That's jest where the kid has went," said Gladys. "You go right home, M'ria. We'll go with you, and I'll bet a cooky you'll find that your step-ma has had a telegram."
Maria hesitated a moment; then she started, Wollaston Lee still keeping close hold of her arm. Gladys was on the other side.
When Maria reached home, she pushed open the front door, which was unlocked, and rushed violently in. Wollaston and Gladys followed her, after a slight hesitation, but remained standing in the vestibule. When Maria had come in sight of the house, she had perceived the regular motion of a rocking female head past the parlor light, and she knew that it was Ida. Ida nearly always occupied a rocking-chair, and was fond of the gentle, swaying motion.
"There she is, rocking just as if the baby wasn't lost," Maria thought, with the bitterest revulsion and sarcasm. When she opened the door she immediately smelled tea, the odor of broiling beefsteak and fried potatoes. "Eating just as if the baby wasn't lost," she thought. She rushed into the parlor, and there was Ida swaying back and forth in her rocking-chair, and there were three ladies with her. One was Mrs. Jonas White; one was a very smartly dressed woman, Mrs. Adams, perhaps the most intimate friend whom Ida had in Edgham; one was the wife of the minister whose church the Edghams attended, Mrs. Applegate, or, as she was called, Mrs. Dr. Applegate—her husband had a degree. Her sister had just died and she was dressed in the deepest mourning; sitting in the shade in a corner, she produced a curious effect of a vacuum of grief. Mrs. Adams, who was quite young and very pretty, stout and blond, was talking eagerly; Mrs. Jonas White was sniffing quietly; Mrs. Applegate, who was ponderously religious, asked once in a while, in a subdued manner, if Mrs. Edgham did not think it would be advisable to unite in prayer.
Ida made no reply. She continued to rock, and she had a curious set expression. Her lips were resolutely compressed, as if to restrain that radiant smile of hers, which had become habitual with her. She looked straight ahead, keeping her eyes fastened upon a Tiffany vase which stood on a little shelf, a glow of pink and gold against a skilful background of crimson velvet. It was as if she were having her photograph taken and had been requested by the photographer to keep her eyes fixed upon that vase.
"The detective system of New York is so lax," said Mrs. Adams. "I do wish there was more system among them and among the police. One would feel—" She heaved a deep sigh.
Mrs. Jonas White sobbed audibly.
"Do you not think, dear friends, that it would be a good plan to offer up our voices at the Throne of Grace for the dear child's return?" asked Mrs. Applegate in a solemn voice, albeit somewhat diffidently. She was a corpulent woman, and was richly dressed, in spite of her deep mourning. A jet brooch rimmed with pearls, gleamed out of the shadow where she sat.
Ida continued to rock.
"But," said Mrs. Adams, "a great many children are lost every year and found. Sometimes the system does really work in a manner to astonish any one. I should not be surprised at any minute to see Mr. Edgham or a policeman walking in with her. But—well—there is so much to be done. The other night, when Mr. Adams and I went in to hear Mrs. Fiske, we drove eight blocks after the performance without seeing one policeman."
"I suppose, though, if you had been really attacked, a dozen would have sprung out from somewhere," said Mrs. White, in a tearful voice. Mrs. White could not have heard Satan himself assailed without a word in his defence, such was the maternal pity of her heart.
"That was what Mr. Adams said," retorted Mrs. Adams, with some asperity, "and I told him that I would rather the dozen policemen were in evidence before I was shot and robbed than after. I had on all my rings, and my diamond sunburst."
"Do you not think, dear friend, that it would be a good plan to offer up our voices at the Throne of Grace for the safe restoration of the dear child?" asked Mrs. Applegate again. Her voice was sonorous, very much like her husband's. She felt that, so far as in her lay, she was taking his place. He was out of town.
It was then that Maria rushed into the room. She ran straight up to her step-mother. The other women started. Ida continued to rock, and look at the Tiffany vase. It seemed as if she dared not take her eyes from it for fear of losing her expression. Then Maria spoke, and her voice did not sound like her own at all. It was accusatory, menacing.
"Where is my little sister?" she cried. "Where is she?"
Mrs. Jonas White rose, approached Maria, and put her arms around her caressingly. "You poor, dear child," she sobbed, "I guess you do feel it. You did set a heap by that blessed little thing, didn't you?"
"She is in the hands of the Lord," said Mrs. Applegate.
"If the police of New York were worth anything, she would be in the police station by this time," said Mrs. Adams, with a fierce toss of her pretty blond head.
"We know not where His islands lift their fronded palms in air; we only know we cannot drift beyond His love and care," said Mrs. Applegate, with a solemn aside. Tears were in her own eyes, but she resolutely checked her impulse to weep. She felt that it would show a lack of faith. She was entirely in earnest.
"Mebbe she is in the police-station," sobbed Mrs. White, continuing to embrace Maria. But Maria gave her a forcible push away, and again addressed herself to her step-mother.
"Where is she?" she demanded.
"Oh, you poor, dear child! Your ma don't know where she is, and she is so awful upset, she sets there jest like marble," said Mrs. White.
"She isn't upset at all. You don't know her as well as I do," said Maria, mercilessly. "She thinks she ought to act upset, so she sits this way. She isn't upset."
"Oh, Maria!" gasped Mrs. White.
"The child is out of her head," said Mrs. Adams, and yet she looked at Maria with covert approval. She was Ida's intimate friend, but in her heart of hearts she doubted her grief. She had once lost by death a little girl of her own. She kept thinking of her little Alice, and how she should feel in a similar case. It did not seem to her that she should rock, and look at a Tiffany vase. She inveighed against the detectives and police with a reserve meaning of indignation against Ida. It seemed to her that any woman whose child was lost should be up and generally making a tumult, if she were doing nothing else.
The Maria, standing before the beautiful woman swaying gently, with her eyes fixed upon the pink and gold of the vase, spoke out for the first time what was in her heart of hearts with regard to her.
"You are a wicked woman," said she; "that is what you are. I don't know as you can help being wicked. I guess you were made wicked; but you are a wicked woman. Your mouth smiles, but your heart never does. You act now as if you were sorry," said she, "but you are not sorry, the way my mother would have been sorry if she had lost me, the way she would have been sorry if Evelyn had been her little girl instead of yours. You are a wicked woman. I have always known it, but I have never told you so before. Now I am going to tell you. Your own child is lost, you let her be lost. You didn't look out for her. Yes, your own child is lost, and you sit there and rock!"
Ida for a moment made no reply. The other women, and Gladys and Wollaston in the vestibule, listened with horror.
"You have had beefsteak and fried potatoes cooked, too," continued Maria, sniffing, "and you have eaten them. You have been eating beefsteak and fried potatoes when your own child was lost and you did not know where she was!" It might have been ridiculous, this last accusation in the thin, sweet, childish voice, but it was not. It was even more terrible than anything else.
Ida turned at last. "I hate you," she said slowly. "I have always hated you. You have hated me ever since I came into this house," she said, "though I have done more than your own mother ever did for you."
"You have not!" cried Maria. "You have got nice clothes for me, but my own mother loved me. What are nice clothes to love? You have not even loved Evelyn. You have only got her nice clothes. You have never loved her. Poor papa and I were the only ones that loved her. You never even loved poor papa. You saw to it that he had things to eat, but you never loved him. You are not made right. All the love in your heart is for your own self. You are turned the wrong way. I don't know as you can help it, but you are a dreadful woman. You are wicked. You never loved the baby, and now you have let her be lost. She is my own little sister, and papa's child, a great deal more than she is anything to you. Where is she?" Maria's voice rang wild. Her face was blazing. She had an abnormal expression in her blue eyes fixed upon her step-mother.
Ida, after her one outburst, gazed upon her with a sort of fear as well as repulsion. She again turned to the Tiffany vase.
Mrs. White, sobbing aloud like a child, again put her arms around Maria.
"Come, come," she said soothingly, "you poor child, I know how you feel, but you mustn't talk so, you mustn't, dear! You have no right to judge. You don't know how your mother feels."
"I know how She doesn't feel!" Maria burst out, "and She isn't my mother. My mother loves me more way off in heaven than that woman loves Her own child on earth. She doesn't feel. She just rocks, and thinks how She looks. I hate Her! Let me go!" With that Maria was out of the room, and ran violently up-stairs.
When she had gone, the three visiting women looked at one another, and the same covert expression of gratified malice, at some one having spoken out what was in their inmost hearts, was upon all three faces. Ida was impassive, with her smiling lips contracted. Mrs. Applegate again murmured something about uniting in prayer.
Maria came hurrying down-stairs. She had in her hand her purse, which contained ten dollars, which her father had given her on her birthday, also a book of New York tickets which had been a present from Ida, and which Ida herself had borrowed several times since giving them to Maria. Maria herself seldom went to New York, and Ida had a fashion of giving presents which might react to her own benefit. Maria, as she passed the parlor door, glanced in and saw her step-mother rocking and staring at the vase. Then she was out of the front-door, racing down the street with Wollaston Lee and Gladys hardly able to keep up with her. Wollaston reached her finally, and again caught her arm. The pressure of the hard, warm boy hand was grateful to the little, hysterical thing, who was trembling from head to foot, with a strange rigidity of tremors. Gladys also clutched her other sleeve.
"Say, M'ria Edgham, where be you goin'?" she demanded.
"I'm going to find my little sister," gasped out Maria. She gave a dry sob as she spoke.
"My!" said Gladys.
"Now, Maria, hadn't you better go back home?" ventured Wollaston.
"No," said Maria, and she ran on towards the station.
"Come home with me to my mother," said Wollaston, pleadingly, but a little timidly. A girl in such a nervous strait as this was a new experience for him.
"She can go home with me," said Gladys. "My mother's a heap better than Ida Slome. Say, M'ria, all them things you said was true, but land! how did you darse?"
Maria made no reply. She kept on.
"Say, M'ria, you don't mean you're goin' to New York?" said Gladys.
"Yes, I am. I am going to find my little sister."
"My!" said Gladys.
"Now, Maria, don't you think you had better go home with me, and see mother?" Wollaston said again.
But Maria seemed deaf. In fact, she heard nothing but the sound of the approaching New York train. She ran like a wild thing, her little, slim legs skimming the ground like a bird's, almost as if assisted by wings.
When the train reached the station, Maria climbed in, Wollaston and Gladys after her. Neither Wollaston nor Gladys had the slightest premeditation in the matter; they were fairly swept along by the emotion of their companion.
When the train had fairly started, Gladys, who had seated herself beside Maria, while Wollaston was in the seat behind them, heaved a deep sigh of bewilderment and terror. "My!" said she.
Wollaston also looked pale and bewildered. He was only a boy, and had never been thrown much upon his own responsibility. All that had been uppermost in his mind was the consideration that Maria could not be stopped, and she must not go alone to New York. But he did not know what to think of it all. He felt chaotic. The first thing which seemed to precipitate his mentality into anything like clearness was the entrance of the conductor. Then he thought instinctively about money. Although still a boy, money as a prime factor was already firmly established in his mind. He reflected with dismay that he had only his Wardway tickets, and about three dollars beside. It was now dark. The vaguest visions of what they were to do in New York were in his head. The fare to New York was a little over a dollar; he had only enough to take them all in, then what next? He took out his pocket-book, but Gladys looked around quickly.
"She's got a whole book of tickets," she said.
However, Wollaston, who was proud, started to pay the conductor, but he had reached Maria first, and she had said "Three," peremptorily. Then she handed the book to Wollaston, with the grim little ghost of a smile. "You please keep this," said she. "I haven't got any pocket."
Wollaston was so bewildered that the possession of pockets seemed instantly to restore his self-respect. He felt decidedly more at his ease when he had Maria's ticket-book in his innermost pocket. Then she gave him her purse also.
"I wish you would please take this," said she. "There are ten dollars in it, and I haven't any pocket." Wollaston took that.
"All right," he said. He buttoned his gray vest securely over Maria's pretty little red purse. Then he leaned over the seat, and began to speak, but he absolutely did not know what to say. He made an idiotic remark about the darkness. "Queer how quick it grows dark, when it begins," said he.