Maria ignored it, but Gladys said: "Yes, it is awful queer."
Gladys's eyes looked wild. The pupils were dilated. She had been to New York but once before in her life, and now to be going in the evening to find Maria's little sister was almost too much for her intelligence, which had its limitations.
However, after a while, Wollaston Lee spoke again. He was in reality a keen-witted boy, only this was an emergency into which he had been surprised, and which he had not foreseen, and Maria's own abnormal mood had in a measure infected him. Presently he spoke to the point.
"What on earth are you going to do when you get to New York, anyhow?" said he to Maria.
"Find her," replied Maria, laconically.
"But New York is a mighty big city. How do you mean to go to work? Now I—"
Maria cut him short. "I am going right up to Her cousin's, on West Forty-ninth Street, and find out if Evelyn is there," said she.
"But what would make the child want to go there, anyhow?"
"It was the only place she had ever been in New York," said Maria.
"But I don't see what particular reason she would have for going there, though," said Wollaston. "How would she remember the street and number?"
"She was an awful bright kid," said Gladys, with a momentary lapse of reason, "and kids is queer. I know, 'cause we've got so many of 'em to our house. Sometimes they'll remember things you don't ever think they would. My little sister Maud remembers how my mother drowned five kittens oncet, when she was in long clothes. We knowed she did, 'cause when the cat had kittens next time we caught her trying to drown 'em herself. Kids is awful queer. Maud can't remember how to spell her own name, either, and she's most six now. She spells it M-a-u-d, when it had ought to be M-a-u-g-h-d. I shouldn't be one mite surprised if M'ria's little sister remembered the street and number."
"Anyway, she knew her whole name, because I've heard her say it," said Maria. "Her cousin's name is Mrs. George B. Edison. Evelyn used to say it, and we used to laugh."
"Oh, well, if she knew the name like that she might have found the place all right," said Wollaston. "But what puzzles me is why she wanted to go there, anyway?"
"I don't know," said Maria.
"I don't know," said Wollaston, "but it seems to me the best thing to do would be to go directly to a police-office and have the chief of police notified, and set them at work; but then I suppose your father has done that already."
Maria turned upon him with indignation. "Go to a police-station to find my little sister!" said she. "What would I go there for?"
"Yes, what do you suppose that kid has did?" asked Gladys.
"What would I go there for?" demanded Maria, flashing the light of her excited, strained little face upon the boy.
Maria no longer looked pretty. She no longer looked even young. Lines of age were evident around her mouth, her forehead was wrinkled. The boy fairly started at the sight of her. She seemed like a stranger to him. Her innermost character, which he had heretofore only guessed at by superficial signs, was written plainly on her face. The boy felt himself immeasurably small and young, manly and bold of his age as he really was. When a young girl stretches to the full height of her instincts, she dwarfs any boy of her own age. Maria's feeling for her little sister was fairly maternal. She was in spirit a mother searching for her lost young, rather than a girl searching for her little sister. Her whole soul expanded. She fairly looked larger, as well as older. When they got off the train at Jersey City, she led the little procession straight for the Twenty-third Street ferry. She marched ahead like a woman of twice her years.
"You had better hold up your dress, M'ria," said Gladys, coming up with her, and looking at her with wonder. "My, how you do race!"
Maria reached round one hand and caught a fold of her skirt. Her new dress was in fact rather long for her. Ida had remarked that morning that she would have Miss Keeler shorten it on Saturday. Ida had no wish to have a grown-up step-daughter quite yet, whom people might take for her own.
The three reached the ferry-boat just as she was about to leave her slip. They sat down in a row midway of the upper deck. The heat inside was intense. Gladys loosened her shabby little sacque. Maria sat impassible.
"Ain't you most baked in here?" asked Gladys.
"No," replied Maria.
Both Gladys and Wollaston looked cowed. They kept glancing at each other and at Maria. Maria sat next Gladys, Wollaston on Gladys's other side. Gladys nudged Wollaston, and whispered to him.
"We've jest got to stick close to her," she whispered, in an alarmed cadence. The boy nodded.
Then they both glanced again at Maria, who seemed quite oblivious of their attention. When they reached the other side, Wollaston, with an effort, asserted himself.
"We had better take a cross-town car to the Sixth Avenue Elevated," he said, pressing close to Maria's side and seizing her arm again.
Maria shook her head. "No," she said. "Where Mrs. Edison lives is not so near the Elevated. It will be better to take a cross-town car and transfer at Seventh Avenue."
"All right," said Wollaston. He led the way in the run down the stairs, and aided his companions onto the cross-town car. He paid their fares, and got the transfers, and stopped the other car. He was beginning to feel himself again, at least temporarily.
"Well, I think the police-station is the best place to look, but have your own way. It won't take long to see if she is there now," said Wollaston. He was hanging on a strap in front of Maria. The car was crowded with people going to up-town theatres. Some of the ladies, in showy evening wraps, giving glimpses of delicate waists, looked curiously at the three. There was something extraordinary about their appearance calculated to attract attention, although it was difficult to say just why. After they had left the car, a lady with a white lace blouse showing between the folds of a red cloak, said to her escort: "I wonder who they were?"
"I don't know," said the man, who had been watching them. "I thought there was something unusual."
"I thought so, too. That well-dressed young woman, and that handsome boy, and that shabby little girl." By the "young woman" she meant Maria.
"Yes, a queer combination," said the man.
"It wasn't altogether that, but they looked so desperately in earnest."
Meantime, while the lights of the car disappeared up the avenue, Maria, Wollaston, and Gladys Mann searched for the house in which had lived Ida Edgham's cousin.
At last they found it, mounted the steps, and rang the bell. It was an apartment-house. After a little the door opened of itself.
"My!" said Gladys, but she followed Wollaston and Maria inside.
Wollaston began searching the names above the rows of bells on the wall of the vestibule.
"What did you say the name was?" he asked of Maria.
"Edison. Mrs. George B. Edison."
"There is no such name here."
"There must be."
"Let me see," said Maria. She searched the names. "Well, I don't care," said she. "It was on the third floor, and I am going up and ask, anyway."
"Now, Maria, do you think—" began Wollaston.
But Maria began climbing the stairs. There was no elevator.
"My!" said Gladys, but she followed Maria.
Wollaston pushed by them both. "See here, you don't know what you are getting into," said he, sternly. "You let me go first."
When they reached the third floor, Maria pointed to a door. "That is the door," she whispered, breathlessly.
Wollaston knocked. Immediately the door was flung open by a very pretty young woman in a rose-colored evening gown. Her white shoulders gleamed through the transparent chiffon, and a comb set with rhinestones sparkled in the fluff of her blond hair. When she saw the three she gave a shrill scream, and immediately a very small man, much smaller than she, but with a fierce cock of a black pointed beard, and a tremendous wiriness of gesture, appeared.
"Oh, Tom!" gasped the young woman. "Oh!"
"What on earth is the matter, Stella?" asked the man. Then he looked fiercely at the three. "Who are these people?" he asked.
"I don't know. I opened the door. I thought it was Adeline and Raymond, and then I saw these strange people. I don't know how they got in."
"We came in the door," said Gladys, with some asperity, "and we are lookin' for M'ria's little sister. Be you her ma-in-law's cousin?"
"I don't know who these people are," the young woman said, faintly, to the man. "I think they must be burglars."
"Burglars, nothin'!" said Gladys, who had suddenly assumed the leadership of the party. Opposition and suspicion stimulated her. She loved a fight. "Be you her ma-in-law's cousin, and have you got her little sister?"
Wollaston looked inquiringly at Maria, who was very pale.
"It isn't Her cousin," she gasped. "I don't know who she is. I never saw her."
Then Wollaston spoke, hat in hand, and speaking up like a man. "Pardon us, sir," he said, "we did not intend to intrude, but—"
"Get out of this," said the man, with a sudden dart towards the door.
His wife screamed again, and put her hand over a little diamond brooch at her throat. "I just know they are sneak-thieves," she gasped. "Do send them away, Tom!"
Wollaston tried to speak again. "We merely wished to ascertain," said he, "if a lady by the name of Mrs. George A.—"
"B." interrupted Gladys.
"B. Edison lived here. This young lady's little sister is lost, and Mrs. Edison is a relative, and we thought—"
The man made another dart. "Don't care what you thought," he shouted. "Keep your thoughts to yourself! Get out of here!"
"Do you know where Mrs. George B. Edison lives now?" asked Wollaston, courteously, but his black eyes flashed at the man.
"No, I don't."
"No, we don't," said the young woman in pink. "Do make them go, Tom."
"We are perfectly willing to go," said Wollaston. "We have no desire to remain any longer where people are not willing to answer civil questions."
Maria all this time had said nothing. She was perfectly overcome with the conviction that Ida's cousin was not there, and consequently not Evelyn. Moreover, she was frightened at the little man's fierce manner. She clung to Wollaston's arm as they retreated, but Gladys turned around and deliberately stuck her tongue out at the man and the young woman in rose. The man slammed the door.
The three met on the stoop of the house two people in gay attire.
"Go up and see your friends that don't know how to treat folks decent," said Gladys. The woman looked wonderingly at her from under the shade of a picture hat. Her escort opened the door. "Ten chances to one they had the kid hid somewhere," said Gladys, so loudly that both turned and looked at her.
"Hush up," said Wollaston.
"Well, what be you goin' to do now?" asked Gladys.
"I am going to a drug-store, and see if I can find out where Maria's relatives have moved to," replied Wollaston. He walked quite alertly now. Maria's discomfiture had reassured him.
They walked along a few blocks until they saw the lights of a drug-store on the corner. Then Wollaston led them in and marched up to the directory chained to the counter.
"What's that?" Gladys asked. "A Bible?"
"No, it's a directory," Maria replied, in a dull voice.
"What do they keep it chained for? Books don't run away."
"I suppose they are afraid folks will steal it."
"My!" said Gladys, eying the big volume. "I don't see what on earth they'd do with it when they got it stole," she remarked, in a low, reflective voice.
Maria leaned against the counter and waited.
Finally, Wollaston turned to her with an apologetic air. "I can't find any George B. here," he said. "You are sure it was B?"
"Yes," replied Maria.
"Well, there's no use," said Wollaston. "There is no George B. Edison in this book, anyhow."
He came forward, and stood looking at Maria. Maria gazed absently at the crowds passing on the street. Gladys watched them both.
"Well," said Gladys, presently, "you ain't goin' to stand here all night, be you? What be you goin' to do next? Go to the police-station?"
"I don't see that there is any use," replied Wollaston. "Maria's father must have been there by this time. This is a wild-goose chase anyhow." Wollaston's tone was quite vicious. He scowled superciliously at the salesman who stepped forward and asked if he wanted anything. "No, we don't, thank you," he said.
"What be you goin' to do?" asked Gladys, again. She looked at the soda-fountain.
"I don't see anything to do but to go home," said Wollaston. "There is no sense in our chasing around New York any longer, that I can see."
"You can't go home to-night, anyhow," Gladys said, quite calmly. "They've took off that last train, and there ain't more'n ten minutes to git down to the station."
Wollaston turned pale, and looked at her with horror. "What makes you think they've taken off that last train?" he demanded.
"Ain't my pa brakeman when he's sober, and he's been real sober for quite a spell now."
Wollaston seized Maria by the arm. "Come, quick!" he said, and leaving the drug-store he broke into a run for the Elevated, with Gladys following.
"There ain't no use in your runnin'," said she. "You know yourself you can't git down to Cortlandt Street, and walk to the ferry in ten minutes. I never went but oncet, but I know it can't be did."
Wollaston slackened his pace. "That is so," he said. Then he looked at Maria in a kind of angry despair. He felt, in spite of his romantic predilection for her, that he wished she were a boy, so he could say something forcible. He realized his utter helplessness with these two girls in a city where he knew no one, and he again thought of the three dollars in his pocket-book. He did not suppose that Maria had more than fifty cents in hers. Then, too, he was worldly wise enough to realize the difficulty of the situation, the possible danger even. It was ten o'clock at night, and here he was with two young girls to look out for.
Then Gladys, who had also worldly wisdom, although of a crude and vulgar sort, spoke. "Folks are goin' to talk like the old Harry if we stay in here all night," said she, "and besides, there's no knowin' what is a safe place to go into."
"That is so," said Wollaston, gloomily, "and I—have not much money with me."
"I've got money enough," Maria said, suddenly. "There are ten dollars in my pocket-book I gave you to keep."
"My!" said Gladys.
Wollaston brightened for a moment, then his face clouded again. "Well, I don't know as that makes it much better," said he. "I don't quite see how to manage. They are so particular in hotels now, that I don't know as I can get you into a decent one. As for myself, I don't care. I can look out for myself, but I don't know what to do with you, Maria."
Gladys made a little run and stepped in front of them. "There ain't but one thing you can do, so Maria won't git talked about all the rest of her life, and I kin tell you what it is," said she.
"What is it?" asked Wollaston, in a burst of anger. "I call it a pretty pickle we are in, for my part. Ten chances to one, Mr. Edgham has got the baby back home safe and sound by this time, anyway, and here we are, here is Maria!"
"There ain't but one thing you can do," said Gladys. Her tone was forcible. She was full of the vulgar shrewdness of a degenerate race, for the old acumen of that race had sharpened her wits.
"What! in Heaven's name?" cried Wollaston.
The three had been slowly walking along, and had stopped near a church, which was lighted. As they were talking the lights went out. A thin stream of people ceased issuing from the open doors. A man in a clerical dress approached them, walking quite rapidly. He was evidently bound, from the trend of his steps, to a near-by house, which was his residence.
"Git married," said Gladys, abruptly. Then, before the others realized what she was doing, she darted in front of the approaching clergyman. "They want to git married," said she.
The clergyman stopped and stared at her, then at the couple beyond, who were quite speechless with astonishment. He was inconceivably young for his profession. He was small, and had a round, rollicking face, which he was constantly endeavoring to draw down into lines of asceticism.
"Who wants to get married?" asked the clergyman.
"Them two," replied Gladys, succinctly. She pointed magisterially at Wollaston and Maria.
Wollaston was tall and manly looking for his age, Maria's dress touched the ground. The clergyman had not, at the moment, a doubt as to their suitable age. He was not a brilliant young man, naturally. He had been pushed through college and into his profession by wealthy relatives, and, moreover, with his stupidity, he had a certain spirit of recklessness and sense of humor which gave life a spice for him.
"Want to get married, eh?" he said.
Then Wollaston spoke. "No, we do not want to get married," he said, positively. Then he said to Gladys, "I wish you would mind your own business."
But he had to cope with the revival of a wonderful feminine wit of a fine old race in Gladys. "I should think you would be plum ashamed of yourself," she said, severely, "after you have got that poor girl in here; and if she stays and you ain't married, she'll git talked about."
The clergyman approached Wollaston and Maria. Maria had begun to cry. She was trembling from head to foot with fear and confusion. Wollaston looked sulky and angry.
"Is that true—did you induce this girl to come to New York to be married?" he inquired, and his own boyish voice took on severe tones. He was very strong in moral reform.
"No, I did not," replied Wollaston.
"He did," said Gladys. "She'll get talked about if she ain't, too, and the last train has went, and we've got to stay in New York all night."
"Where do you come from?" inquired the young clergyman, and his tone was more severe still.
"From Edgham, New Jersey," replied Gladys.
"Who are you?" inquired the clergyman.
"I ain't no account," replied Gladys. "All our folks git talked about, but she's different."
"I suppose you are her maid," said the clergyman, noting with quick eye the difference in the costumes of the two girls.
"Call it anything you wanter," said Gladys, indifferently. "I ain't goin' to have her talked about, nohow."
"Come, Maria," said Wollaston, but Maria did not respond even to his strong, nervous pull on her arm. She sobbed convulsively.
"No, that girl does not go one step, young man," said the clergyman. He advanced closely, and laid a hand on Maria's other arm. Although small in body and mind, he evidently had muscle. "Come right in the house," said he, and Maria felt his hand on her arm like steel. She yielded, and began following him, Wollaston in vain trying to hold her back.
Gladys went behind Wollaston and pushed vigorously. "You git right in there, the way he says, Wollaston Lee," said she. "You had ought to be ashamed of yourself."
Before the boy well knew what he was doing he found himself in a small reception-room lined with soberly bound books. All that was clear in his mind was that he could not hinder Maria from entering, and that she must not go into the house alone with Gladys and this strange man.
A man had been standing in the doorway of the house, waiting the entrance of the clergyman. He was evidently a servant, and his master beckoned him.
"Call Mrs. Jerrolds, Williams," he said.
"What is your name?" he asked Maria, who was sobbing more wildly than ever.
"Her name is Maria Edgham," replied Gladys, "and his is Wollaston Lee. They both live in Edgham."
"How old are you?" the clergyman asked of Wollaston; but Gladys cut in again.
"He's nineteen, and she's goin' on," she replied, shamelessly.
"We are neither of us," began Wollaston, whose mind was in a whirl of anger of confusion.
But the clergyman interrupted him. "I am ashamed of you, young man," he said, "luring an innocent young girl to New York and then trying to lie out of your responsibility."
"I am not," began Wollaston again; but then the man who had stood in the door entered with a portly woman in a black silk tea-gown. She looked as if she had been dozing, or else was naturally slow-witted. Her eyes, under heavy lids, were dull; her mouth had a sleepy, although good-natured pout, like a child's, between her fat cheeks.
"I am sorry to trouble you, Mrs. Jerrolds," said the clergyman, "but I need you and Williams for witnesses." Then he proceeded.
Neither Wollaston nor Maria were ever very clear in their minds how it was done. Both had thought marriage was a more complicated proceeding. Neither was entirely sure of having said anything. Indeed, Wollaston was afterwards quite positive that Gladys Mann answered nearly all the clergyman's questions; but at all events, the first thing he heard distinctly was the clergyman's pronouncing him and Maria man and wife. Then the clergyman, who was zealous to the point of fanaticism, and who honestly considered himself to have done an exceedingly commendable thing, invited them to have some wedding-cake, which he kept ready for such emergencies, and some coffee, but Wollaston replied with a growl of indignation and despair. This time Maria followed his almost brutally spoken command to follow him, and the three went out of the house.
"See that you treat your wife properly, young man," the clergyman called out after him, in a voice half jocular, half condemnatory, "or there will be trouble."
Wollaston growled an oath, the first which he had ever uttered, under his breath, and strode on. He had released his hold on Maria's arm. Ahead of them, a block distant, was an Elevated station, and Maria, who seemed to suddenly recover her faculties, broke into a run for it.
"Where be you goin'?" called out Gladys.
"I am going down to the Jersey City station, quick," replied Maria, in a desperate voice.
"I thought you'd go to a hotel. There ain't no harm, now you're married, you know," said Gladys, "and then we could have some supper. I'm awful hungry. I ain't eat a thing sence noon."
"I am going right down to the station," repeated Maria.
"The last train has went. What's the use?"
"I don't care. I'm going down there."
"What be you goin' to do when you git there?"
"I am going to sit there, and wait till morning."
"My!" said Gladys.
However, she went on up the Elevated stairs with Maria and Wollaston. Wollaston threw down the fares and got the tickets, and strode on ahead. His mouth was set. He was very pale. He probably realized to a greater extent than any of them what had taken place. It was inconceivable to him that it had taken place, that he himself had been such a fool. He felt like one who has met with some utterly unexplainable and unaccountable accident. He felt as he had done once when, younger, he had stuck his own knife, with which he was whittling, into his eye, to the possible loss of it. It seemed to him as if something had taken place without his volition. He was like a puppet in a show. He looked at Maria, and realized that he hated her. He wondered how he could ever have thought her pretty. He looked at Gladys Mann, and felt murderous. He had a high temper. As the train approached, he whispered in her ear,
"Damn you, Gladys Mann, it's a pretty pickle you have got us into."
Gladys was used to being sworn at. She was not in the least intimidated.
"Do you s'pose I was goin' to have M'ria talked about?" she said. "You can cuss all you want to."
They got into the train. Wollaston sat by himself, Gladys and Maria together. Maria was no longer weeping, but she looked terrified beyond measure, and desperate. A horrible imagination of evil was over her. She never glanced at Wollaston. She thought that she wished there would be an accident on the train and he might be killed. She hated him more than he hated her.
They were just in time for a boat at Cortlandt Street. When they reached the Jersey City side Wollaston went straight to the information bureau, and then returned to Gladys and Maria, seated on a bench in the waiting-room.
"Well, there is a train," he said, curtly.
"'Ain't it been took off?" asked Gladys.
"No, but we've got to wait an hour and a half." Then he bent down and whispered in Gladys's ear, "I wish to God you'd been dead before you got us into this, Gladys Mann!"
"My father said it had been took off," said Gladys. "You sure there is one?"
"Of course I'm sure!"
"My!" said Gladys.
Wollaston went to a distant seat and sat by himself. The two girls waited miserably. Gladys had suffered a relapse. Her degeneracy of wit had again overwhelmed her. She looked at Maria from time to time, then she glanced around at Wollaston, and her expression was almost idiotic. The people who were on the seat with them moved away. Maria turned suddenly to Gladys.
"Gladys Mann," said she, "if you ever tell of this—"
"Then you ain't goin' to—" said Gladys.
"Going to what?"
"Live with him?"
"Live with him! I hate him enough to wish he was dead. I'll never live with him; and if you tell, Gladys Mann, I'll tell you what I'll do."
"What?" asked Gladys, in a horrified whisper.
"I'll go and drown myself in Fisher's Pond, that's what I'll do."
"I never will tell, honest, M'ria," said Gladys.
"You'd better not."
"Hope to die, if I do."
"You will die if you do," said Maria, "for I'll leave a note saying you pushed me into the pond, and it will be true, too. Oh, Gladys Mann! it's awful what you've done!"
"I didn't mean no harm," said Gladys.
"And there's a train, too."
"Father said there wasn't."
"I know it. There ain't never tellin' when father lies," said Gladys. "I guess father don't know what lies is, most of the time. I s'pose he's always had a little, if he 'ain't had a good deal. But I'll never tell, Maria, not as long as I live."
"If you do, I'll drown myself," said Maria.
Then the two sat quietly until the train was called out, when they went through the gate, Maria showing her tickets for herself and Gladys. Wollaston had purchased his own and returned Maria's. He kept behind the two girls as if he did not belong to their party at all. On the train he rode in the smoking-car.
The car was quite full at first, but the passengers got off at the way-stations. When they drew near Edgham there were only a few left. Wollaston had not paid the slightest attention to the passengers. He could not have told what sort of a man occupied the seat with him, nor even when he got off. He was vaguely conscious of the reeking smoke of the car, but that was all. When the conductor came through he handed out his ticket mechanically, without looking at him. He stared out of the window at the swift-passing, shadowy trees, at the green-and-red signal-lights, and the bright glare from the lights of the stations through which they passed. Once they passed by a large factory on fire, surrounded by a shouting mob of men, and engines. Even that did not arrest his attention, although it caused quite a commotion in the car. He sat huddled up in a heap, staring out with blank eyes, all his consciousness fixed upon his own affairs. He felt as if he had made an awful leap from boyhood to manhood in a minute. He was full of indignation, of horror, of shame. He was conscious of wishing that there were no girls in the world. After they had passed the last station before reaching Edgham he looked wearily away from the window, and recognized, stupidly, Maria's father in a seat in the forward part of the car. Harry was sitting as dejectedly hunched upon himself as was the boy. Wollaston recognized the fact that he could not have found little Evelyn, and realized wickedly and furiously that he did not care, that a much more dreadful complication had come into his own life. He turned again to the window.
Maria, in the car behind the smoker, sat beside Gladys, and looked out of the window very much as Wollaston was doing. She also was conscious of an exceeding horror and terror, and a vague shame. It was, to Maria, as if she had fallen through the fairy cobweb of romance and struck upon the hard ground of reality with such force that her very soul was bleeding. Wollaston, in the smoker, wished no more devoutly that there were no girls in the world, than Maria wished there were no boys. Her emotions had been, as it were, thrust back down her own throat, and she was choked and sickened with them. She would not look at nor speak to Gladys. Once, when Gladys addressed a remark to her, Maria thrust out an indignant shoulder towards her.
"You needn't act so awful mad," whispered Gladys. "I ain't goin' to tell, and I was doin' it on your account. My mother will give it to me when I git home."
"What are you going to tell her?" asked Maria, with sudden interest.
"I'm goin' to tell her I've been out walkin' with Ben Jadkins. She's told me not to, and she'll lick me for all she's wuth," said Gladys, angrily. "But I don't care. It's lucky father 'ain't been through this train. It's real lucky to have your father git drunk sometimes. I'll git licked, but I don't care."
Maria, sitting there, paid no more attention. The shock of her own plight had almost driven from her mind the thought of Evelyn, but when a woman got on the train leading a child about her age, the old pain concerning her came back. She began to weep again quietly.
"I don't see what you are cryin' for," said Gladys, in an accusing voice. "You might have been an old maid."
"I don't believe she is found," Maria moaned, in a low voice.
"Oh, the kid! You bet your life she'll turn up. Your pa 'll find her all right. I didn't know as you were cryin' about that."
When they reached Edgham, Maria and Gladys got off the train, Wollaston Lee also got off, and Harry Edgham, and from a rear car a stout woman, yanking, rather than leading, by the hand, a little girl with a fluff of yellow hair. The child was staggering with sleep. The stout woman carried on her other arm a large wax-doll whose face smiled inanely over her shoulder.
Suddenly there was a rush and cry, and Maria had the little girl in her arms. She was kneeling beside her on the dusty platform, regardless of her new suit.
"Sister! Sister!" screamed the child.
"Sister's own little darling!" said Maria, then she began to sob wildly.
"It's her little sister. Where did you get her?" Gladys asked, severely, of the stout woman, who stood holding the large doll and glowering, while Harry Edgham came hurrying up. Then there was another scream from the baby, and she was in her father's arms. There were few at the station at that hour, but a small crowd gathered around. On the outskirts was Wollaston Lee, looking on with his sulky, desperate face.
The stout woman grasped Harry vehemently by the arm. "Look at here," said she. "I want to know, an' I ain't got no time to fool around, for I want to take the next train back. Is that your young one? Speak up quick."
Harry, hugging the child to his breast, looked at the stout woman.
"Yes," he replied, "she is mine, and I have been looking for her all day. Where—Did you?"
"No, I didn't," said the stout woman, emphatically. "She did. I don't never meddle with other folks' children. I 'ain't never been married, and I 'ain't never wanted to be. And I 'ain't never cared nothin' about children; always thought they was more bother than they were worth. And when I changed cars here this mornin', on my way from Lawsons, where I've been to visit my married sister, this young one tagged me onto the train, and nothin' I could say made anybody believe she wa'n't mine. I told 'em I wa'n't married, but it didn't make no difference. I call it insultin'. There I was goin' up to Tarrytown to-day to see my aunt 'Liza. She's real feeble, and they sent for me, and there I was with this young one. I had a cousin in New York, and I took her to her house, and she didn't know any better what to do than I did. She was always dreadful helpless. We waited till her husband got home. He runs a tug down the harbor, and he said take her to the police-station, and mebbe I'd find out somebody had been tryin' to find her. So my cousin's husband and me went to the station, and he was so tuckered out and mad at the whole performance that I could hear him growlin' cuss words under his breath the whole way. We took her and this great doll down to the station, and we found out there who she was most likely, and who she belonged to. And my cousin's husband said I'd got to take her out here. He looked it up and found out I could git back to New York to-night. He said he wouldn't come nohow." Suddenly a light flashed on the woman. "Say," she said, "you don't mean to say you've been on the train yourself all the way out from New York?"
"Yes, I came out on the train," admitted Harry, meekly. "I am sorry—"
"Well, you'd better be," said the woman. "Here I've traipsed out here for nothin' this time of night. I call you all a set of numskulls. I don't call the young one very bright, either. Couldn't tell where she lived, nor what her father's name was. Jest said it was papa, and her name was peshious, or some such tomfoolery. I advise you to tag her if she is in the habit of runnin' away. Here I ought to have been up in Tarrytown, and I've been foolin' round in New York all day with your young one and this big doll." With that the stout woman thrust the doll at Maria. "Here, take this thing," said she. "I've had enough of it! There ain't any sense in lettin' a child of her size lug around a doll as big as that, anyhow. When does my train come? Hev I got to cross to the other side? My cousin's husband said it would be about twenty minutes I'd have to wait."
"I'll take you round to the other side, and I cannot be grateful enough for your care," began Harry, but the woman stopped him again.
"I suppose you'll be willin' to pay my fare back to New York; that's all I want," said she. "I don't want no thanks. I 'ain't no use for children, but I ain't a heathen."
"I'll be glad to give you a great deal more than your fare to New York," Harry said, in a broken voice. Evelyn was already fast asleep on his shoulder. He led the way down the stairs towards the other track.
"I don't want nothin' else, except five cents for my car-fare. I can get a transfer, and it won't be more'n that," said the woman, following. "I've got enough to git along with, and I ain't a heathen."
Harry, with Evelyn asleep in his arms, and Maria and Gladys, waited with the stout woman until the train came. The station was closed, and the woman sat down on a bench outside and immediately fell asleep herself.
When the train came, Harry thrust a bank-note into the woman's hand, having roused her with considerable difficulty, and she stumbled on to the train over her skirts just as she had done in the morning.
Harry knew the conductor. "Look out for that woman," he called out to him. "She found my little girl that was lost."
The conductor nodded affably as the train rolled out.
Wollaston Lee had gone home when the others descended the stairs and crossed to the other track. When Harry, with Evelyn in his arms, her limp little legs dangling, and Maria and Gladys, were on their way home, the question, which he in his confusion had not thought to put before, came.
"Why, Maria, where did you come from?" he asked.
"From New York," replied Maria, meekly.
"Her and me went up to her ma-in-law's cousin's, on Forty-ninth Street, to find the kid," Gladys cut in, glibly, "but the cousin had moved."
Harry stared at them. "Why, how happened you to do such a thing?" he asked.
"I couldn't wait home and not do anything," Maria sobbed, nervously.
"Her ma-in-law's cousin had moved," said Gladys.
"How did you find your way?"
"I had been there before," sobbed Maria. She felt for her father's hand, and grasped it with a meaning of trust and fear which he did not understand.
"Well, you must never do such a thing again, no matter what happens," he said, and held the poor little girl's hand firmly. "Thank God father's got you both back safe and sound."
Gladys made an abrupt departure on a corner.
"Good-night, M'ria!" she sung out, and was gone, a slim, flying figure in the gloom.
"Are you afraid to go alone?" Harry called after her, in some uncertainty.
"Land, no!" came cheerily back.
"How happened she to be with you?" asked Harry.
"She was down at the station when I came home from Wardway," replied Maria, faintly. Her strength was almost gone. She could hardly stagger up the steps of the house with her father, he bearing his recovered child, she bearing her secret.
Ida was still to be seen rocking when Harry, with Evelyn and Maria, came in sight of the house. The visiting ladies had gone. Josephine, with her face swollen and tear-stained, was standing watching at a window in the dark dining-room. When she saw the three approaching she screamed:
"Oh, Mis' Edgham, they've found her! They're comin'! They've got her!" and rushed to open the door.
Ida rose, and came gracefully to meet them with a sinuous movement and a long sweep of her rose-colored draperies. Her radiant smile lit up her face again. She looked entirely herself when Harry greeted her.
"Well, Ida, our darling is found," he said, in a broken voice.
Ida reached out her arms, from which hung graceful pendants of lace and ribbons, but the sleepy child clung to her father and whimpered crossly.
"She is all tired out, poor little darling! Papa's poor little darling!" said Harry, carrying her into the parlor.
"Josephine, tell Annie to heat some milk at once," Ida said, sharply.
Annie, whose anxious face had been visible peeping through the dark entrance of the dining-room, hastened into the kitchen.
"Josephine, go right up-stairs and get Miss Evelyn's bed ready," ordered Ida. Then she followed Harry into the parlor and began questioning him, standing over him, and now and then touching the yellow head of the child, who always shrank crossly at her touch.
Harry told his story. "I had the whole police force of New York on the outlook, although I did not really think myself she was in the city, and there papa's precious darling was all the time right on the train with him and he never knew it. And here was poor little Maria," added Harry, looking at Maria, who had sunk into a corner of a divan—"here was poor little Maria, Ida, and she had gone hunting her little sister on her own account. She thought she might be at your cousin Alice's. If I had known that both my babies were wandering around New York I should have been crazy. When I got off the train, there was Maria and that little Mann girl. She was down at the station when she got home from Wardway, Maria says, and those two children went right off to New York."
"Did they?" said Ida, in a listless voice. She had resumed her seat in her rocking-chair.
"Edwin Shaw said he thought he saw Evelyn getting on the New York train this morning," said Maria, faintly.
"She is all used up," Harry said. "You had better drink some hot milk yourself, Maria. Only think of that child and that Mann girl going off to New York on their own accounts, Ida!"
"Yes," said Ida.
"Wollaston Lee went, too," Maria said, suddenly. A quick impulse for concealment in that best of hiding-places, utter frankness and openness, came over her. "He got off the train here. You know he began school, too, at Wardway this morning, and he and Gladys both went."
"Well, I'm thankful you had him along," said Harry. "The Lord only knows what you two girls would have done alone in a city like New York. You must never do such a thing again, whatever happens, Maria. You might as well run right into a den of wild beasts. Only think of that child going to New York, and coming out on the last train, with that Mann girl; and Wollaston is only a boy, though he's bright and smart. And your cousin has moved, Ida."
"I thought she had," said Ida.
"And to think of what those children might have got into," said Harry, "in a city like New York, which is broken out all over with plague spots instead of having them in one place! Only think of it, Ida!"
Harry's voice was almost sobbing. It seemed as if he fairly appealed to his wife for sympathy, with his consciousness of the dangers through which his child had passed. But Ida only said, "Yes."
"And the baby might have fallen into the worst hands," said Harry. "But, thank God, a good woman, although she was coarse enough, got hold of her."
"Yes, we can't be thankful enough," Ida said, smoothly, and then Josephine came in with a tray and a silver cup of hot milk for Evelyn.
"Is that all the milk Annie heated?" asked Harry.
"Well, tell Annie to go to the sideboard and get that bottle of port-wine and pour out a glass for Miss Maria; and, Josephine, you had better bring her something to eat with it. You haven't had any supper, have you, child?"
Maria shook her head. "I don't want any, thank you, papa," said she.
"Is there any cold meat, Josephine, do you know?"
Josephine said there was some cold roast beef.
"Well, bring Miss Maria a plate, with a slice of bread-and-butter, and some beef."
"Have you had any supper yourself, dear?" Ida asked.
"I declare I don't know, dear," replied Harry, who looked unutterably worn and tired. "No, I think not. I don't know when I could have got it. No, I know I have not."
"Josephine," said Ida, "tell Annie to broil a piece of beefsteak for Mr. Edgham, and make a cup of tea."
"Thank you, dear," poor Harry said, gratefully. Then he said to Maria, "Will you wait and have some hot beefsteak and tea with papa, darling?"
Maria shook her head.
"I think she had better eat the cold beef and bread, and drink the wine, and go at once to bed, if she is to start on that early train to-morrow," Ida said.
"Maybe you are right, dear," Harry said. "Hurry with the roast beef and bread and wine for Miss Maria, Josephine, and Annie can see to my supper afterwards."
All this time Harry was coaxing the baby to imbibe spoonfuls of the hot milk. It was hard work, for Evelyn was not very hungry. She had been given a good deal of cake and pie from a bakery all day.
However, at last she was roused sufficiently to finish her little meal, and Maria drank her glass of wine and ate a little of the bread and meat, although it seemed to her that it would choke her. She was conscious of her father's loving, anxious eyes upon her as she ate, and she made every effort.
Little Evelyn had recently had her own little room fitted up. It was next to Maria's; indeed, there was a connecting door between the two rooms. Evelyn's room was a marvel. It was tiny, but complete. Ida had the walls hung with paper with a satin gloss, on which were strewn garlands of rose-buds. There was a white matting and a white fur rug. The small furniture was white, with rose-bud decorations. There was a canopy of rose silk over the tiny bed, and a silk counterpane of a rose-bud pattern.
After Evelyn had finished her hot milk, her father carried her up-stairs into this little nest, and Josephine undressed her and put her to bed. The child's head drooped as helplessly as a baby's all the time, she was so overcome with sleep. When she was in bed, Ida came in and kissed her. She was so fast asleep that she did not know. She and Harry stood for a moment contemplating the little thing, with her yellow hair spread over the white pillow and her round rose of a face sunken therein. Harry put his arm around his wife's waist.
"We ought to be very thankful, dear," he said, and he almost sobbed.
"Yes," said Ida. To do her justice, she regarded the little rosy-and-white thing sunk in slumber with a certain tenderness. She was even thankful. She had been exceedingly disturbed the whole day. She was very glad to have this happy termination, and to be able to go to rest in peace. She bent again over the child, and touched her lips lightly to the little face, and when she looked up her own was softened. "Yes," she whispered, with more of womanly feeling than Harry had ever seen in her—"yes, you are right, we have a great deal to be thankful for."
Maria, in the next room, heard quite distinctly what Ida said. It would once have aroused in her a contemptuous sense of her step-mother's hypocrisy, but now she felt too humbled herself to blame another, even to realize any fault in another. She felt as if she had undergone a tremendous cataclysm of spirit, which had cast her forever from her judgment-seat as far as others were concerned. Was she not deceiving as never Ida had deceived? What would Ida say? What would her father say if he knew that she was—? She could not say the word even to herself. When she was in bed and her light out, she was overcome by a nervous stress which almost maddened her. Faces seemed to glower at her out of the blackness of the night, faces which she knew were somehow projected out of her own consciousness, but which were none the less terrific. She even heard her name shouted, and strange, isolated words, and fragments of sentences. She lay in a deadly fear. Now was the time when, if her own mother had been alive, she would have screamed aloud for some aid. But now she could call to no one. She would have spoken to her father. She would not have told him—she was gripped too fast by her sense of the need of secrecy—but she would have obtained the comfort and aid of his presence and soothing words; but there was Ida. She remembered how she had talked to Ida, and her father was with her. A dull wonder even seized her as to whether Ida would tell her father, and she should be allowed to remain at home after saying such dreadful things. There was no one upon whom she could call. All at once she thought of the maid Annie, whose room was directly over hers. Annie was kindly. She would slip up-stairs to her, and make some excuse for doing so—ask her if she did not smell smoke, or something. It seemed to her that if she did not hear another human voice, come in contact with something human, she should lose all control of herself.
Maria, little, slender, trembling girl, with all the hysterical fancies of her sex crowding upon her, all the sufferings of her sex waiting for her in the future, and with no mother to soften them, slipped out of bed, stole across her room, and opened the door with infinite caution. Then she went up the stairs which led to the third story. Both maids had rooms on the third story. Josephine went home at night, and Hannah, the cook, had gone home with her after the return of the wanderers, and was to remain. She was related to Josephine's mother. She knocked timidly at Annie's door. She waited, and knocked again. She was trembling from head to foot in a nervous chill. She got no response to her knock. Then she called, "Annie," very softly. She waited and called again. At last, in desperation, she opened the door, which was not locked. She entered, and the room was empty. Suddenly she remembered that Annie, kind-hearted as she was, and a good servant, had not a character above suspicion. She remembered that she had heard Gladys intimate that she had a sweetheart, and was not altogether what she should be. She gazed around the empty, forlorn little room, with one side sloping with the slope of the roof, and an utter desolation overcame her, along with a horror of Annie. She felt that if Annie were there she would be no refuge.
Maria turned, and slipped as silently as a shadow down the stairs back to her room. She looked at her bed, and it seemed to her that she could not lie down again in it. Then suddenly she thought of something else. She thought of little Evelyn asleep in the next room. She opened the connecting door softly and stole across to the baby's little bed. It was too small, or she would have crept in beside her. Maria hesitated a moment, then she slid her arms gently under the little, soft, warm body, and gathered the child up in her arms. She was quite heavy. At another time Maria, who had slender arms, could scarcely have carried her. Now she bore her with entire ease into her own room and laid her in her own bed. Then she got in beside her and folded her little sister in her arms. Directly a sense of safety and peace came over her when she felt the little snuggling thing, who had wakened just enough to murmur something unintelligible in her baby tongue, and cling close to her with all her little, rosy limbs, and thrust her head into the hollow of Maria's shoulder. Then she gave a deep sigh and was soundly asleep again. Maria lay awake a little while, enjoying that sense of peace and security which the presence of this little human thing she loved gave her. Then she fell asleep herself.
She waked early. The thought of the early train was in her mind, and Maria was always one who could wake at the sub-recollection of a need. Evelyn was still asleep, curled up like a flower. Maria raised her and carried her back to her own room and put her in her bed without waking her. Then she dressed herself in her school costume and went down-stairs. She had smelled coffee while she was dressing, and knew that Hannah had returned. Her father was in the dining-room when she entered. He usually took an earlier train, but this morning he had felt utterly unable to rise. Maria noticed, with a sudden qualm of fear, how ill and old and worn-out he looked, but Harry himself spoke first with concern for her.
"Papa's poor little girl!" he said, kissing her. "She looks tired out. Did you sleep, darling?"
"Yes, after a while. Are you sick, papa?"
"No, dear. Why?"
"Because you did not go on the other train."
"No, dear, I am all right, just a little tired," replied Harry. Then he added, looking solicitously at Maria, "Are you sure you feel able to go to school to-day?—because you need not, you know."
"I am all right," said Maria.
She and her father had seated themselves at the table. Harry looked at his watch.
"We shall neither of us go if we don't get our breakfast before long," he said.
Then Hannah came in, with a lowering look, bringing the coffee-pot and the chops and rolls.
"Where is Annie?" asked Harry.
"I don't know," replied Hannah, with a toss of her head and a compression of her lips. She was a large, solid woman, with a cast in her eyes. She had never been married.
"You don't know?" said Harry, helping Maria to a chop and a roll, while Hannah poured the coffee.
"No," said Hannah again, and this time her face was fairly malicious. "I don't know how long I can stand such doin's, and that's the truth," she said.
Hannah had come originally from New England, and had principles, in which she took pride, perhaps the more because they had never in one sense been assailed. Annie was a Hungarian, and considered by Hannah to have no principles. She was also pretty, in a rough, half-finished sort of fashion, and had no cast in her eyes. Hannah privately considered that as against her.
Harry began sipping his coffee, which Hannah had set down with such impetus that she spilled a good deal in the saucer, and he looked uneasily at her.
"What do you mean, Hannah?" he asked.
"I mean that I am not used to being throwed in with girls who stays out all night, and nobody knows where they be, and that's the truth," said Hannah, with emphasis.
"Do you mean to say that Annie—"
"Yes, I do. She wa'n't in, and they do say she's married, and—"
"Hush, Hannah, we'll talk about this another time," Harry said, with a glance at Maria.
Just then a step was heard in the kitchen.
"There she is now, the trollop," said Hannah, but she whispered the last word under her breath, and she also gave a glance at Maria, as one might at any innocent ignorance which must be shielded even from knowledge itself.
Annie came in directly. Her pretty, light hair was nicely arranged; she was smiling, but she looked doubtful.
Hannah went with a flounce into the kitchen. Annie had removed her hat and coat and tied on a white apron in a second, and she began waiting exactly as if she had come down the back stairs after a night spent in her own room. Indeed, she did not dream that either Harry or Maria knew that she had not, and she felt quite sure of Hannah's ignorance, since Hannah herself had been away all night.
Maria from time to time glanced at Annie, and, although she had always liked her, a feeling of repulsion came over her. She shrank a little when Annie passed the muffins to her. Harry gave one keen, scrutinizing glance at the girl's face, but he said nothing. After breakfast he went up-stairs to bid Ida, who had a way of rising late, good-bye, and he whispered to her, "Annie was out all last night."
"Oh, well," replied Ida, sleepily, with a little impatience, "it does not happen very often. What are we going to do about it?"
"Hannah is kicking," said Harry, "and—"
"I can't help it if she is," said Ida. "Annie does her work well, and it is so difficult to get a maid nowadays; and I cannot set up as a moral censor, I really cannot, Harry."
"I hate the example, that is all," said Harry. "There Hannah said, right before Maria, that Annie had been out."
"It won't hurt Maria any," Ida replied, with a slight frown. "Maria wouldn't know what she meant. She is not only innocent, but ignorant. I can't turn off Annie, unless I see another maid as good in prospect. Good-bye, dear."
Harry and Maria walked to the station together. Their trains reached Edgham about the same time, although going in opposite directions. It was a frosty morning. There had been a slight frost the night before. A light powder of glistening white lay over everything. The roofs were beginning to smoke as it melted. Maria inhaled the clear air, and her courage revived a little—still, not much. Nobody knew how she dreaded the day, the meeting Wollaston. She could not yet bring herself to call him her husband. It seemed at once horrifying and absurd. The frosty air brought a slight color to the girl's cheeks, but she still looked wretched. Harry, who himself looked more than usually worn and old, kept glancing at her, as they hastened along.
"See here, darling," he said, "hadn't you better not go to school to-day? I will write a note of explanation myself to the principal, at the office, and mail it in New York. Hadn't you better turn around and go home and rest to-day?"
"Oh no," replied Maria. "I would much rather go, papa."
"You look as if you could hardly stand up, much less go to school."
"I am all right," said Maria; but as she spoke she realized that her knees fairly bent under her, and her heart beat loudly in her ears, for they had come in sight of the station.
"You are sure?" Harry said, anxiously.
"Yes, I am all right. I want to go to school."
"Well, look out that you eat a good luncheon," said Harry, as he kissed her good-bye.
Maria had to go to the other side to take her Wardway train. She left her father and went under the bridge and mounted the stairs. When she gained the platform, the first person whom she saw, with a grasp of vision which seemed to reach her very heart, although she apparently did not see him at all, was Wollaston Lee. He also saw her, and his boyish face paled. There were quite a number waiting for the train, which was late. Maud Page was among them. Maria at once went close to her. Maud asked about her little sister. She had heard that she was found, although it was almost inconceivable how the news had spread at such an early hour.
"I am real glad she's found," said Maud. Then she stared curiously at Maria. "Say, was it so?" she asked.
"Was what true?" asked Maria, trembling.
"Was it true that you and Wollaston Lee and Gladys Mann all went to New York looking for your sister, and came out on the last train?"
"Yes, it is true," replied Maria, quite steadily.
"What ever made you?"
"I thought she might have gone to a cousin of Hers who used to live on Forty-ninth Street, but we found the cousin had moved when we got there."
"Gracious!" said Maud. "And you didn't come out till that last train?"
"I should think you would be tired to death, and you don't look any too chipper." Maud turned and stared at Wollaston, who was standing aloof. "I declare, he looks as if he had been up a week of Sundays, too," said she. Then she called out to him, in her high-pitched treble, which sounded odd coming from her soft circumference of throat. Maud's voice ought, by good rights, to have been a rich, husky drone, instead of bearing a resemblance to a parrot's. "Say, Wollaston Lee," she called out, and the boy approached perforce, lifting his hat—"say," said Maud, "I hear you and Maria eloped last night." Then she giggled.
The boy cast a glance of mistrust and doubt at Maria. His face turned crimson.
"You are telling awful whoppers, Maud Page," Maria responded, promptly, and his face cleared. "We just went in to find Evelyn."
"Oh!" said Maud, teasingly.
"You are mean to talk so," said Maria.
Maud laughed provokingly.
"What made Wollaston go for, then?" she asked.
"Do you suppose anybody would let a girl go alone to New York on a night train?" said Maria, with desperate spirit. "He went because he was polite, so there."
Wollaston said nothing. He tried to look haughty, but succeeded in looking sheepish.
"Gladys Mann went, too," said Maria.
"I don't see what makes you go with a girl like that anywhere?" said Maud.
"She's as good as anybody," said Maria.
"Maybe she is," returned Maud. Then she glanced at Wollaston, who was looking away, and whispered in Maria's ear: "They talk like fury about her, and her mother, too."
"I don't care," Maria said, stoutly. "She was down at the station and told me how Evelyn was lost, and then she went in with me."
Maud laughed her aggravating laugh again.
"Well, maybe it was just as well she did," she said, "or else they would have said you and Wollaston had eloped, sure."
Maria began to speak, but her voice was drowned by the rumble of the New York train on the other track. The Wardway train was late. Usually the two trains met at the station.
However, the New York train had only just pulled out of sight before the Wardway train came in. As Maria climbed on the train she felt a paper thrust forcibly into her hand, which closed over it instinctively. She sat with Maud, and had no opportunity to look at it all the way to Wardway. She slipped it slyly into her Algebra.
Maud's eyes were sharp. "What's that you are putting in your Algebra?" she asked.
"A marker," replied Maria. She felt that Maud's curiosity was such that it justified a white lie.
She had no chance to read the paper which Wollaston had slipped into her hand until she was fairly in school. Then she read it under cover of a book. It was very short, and quite manly, although manifestly written under great perturbation of spirit.
Wollaston wrote: "Shall I tell your folks to-night?"
Wollaston was not in Maria's classes. He was older, and had entered in advance. She had not a chance to reply until noon. Going into the restaurant, she in her turn slipped a paper forcibly into his hand.
"Good land! look out!" said Maud Page. "Why, Maria Edgham, you butted right into Wollaston Lee and nearly knocked him over."
What Maria had written was also short, but desperate. She wrote:
"If you ever tell your folks or my folks, or anybody, I will drown myself in Fisher's Pond."
A look of relief spread over the boy's face. Maria glanced at him where he sat at a distant table with some boys, and he gave an almost imperceptible nod of reassurance at her. Maria understood that he had not told, and would not, unless she bade him.
On the train going home that night he found a chance to speak to her. He occupied the seat behind her, and waited until a woman who sat with Maria got off the train at a station, and also a man who had occupied the seat with him. Then he leaned over and said, ostentatiously, so he could be heard half the length of the car, "It is a beautiful day, isn't it?"
Maria did not turn around at all, but her face was deadly white as she replied, "Yes, lovely."
Then the boy whispered, and the whisper seemed to reach her inmost soul. "Look here, I want to do what is right, and—honorable, you know, but hang me if I know what is. It is an awful pickle."
Maria nodded, still with her face straight ahead.
"I don't know how it happened, for my part," the boy whispered.
Maria nodded again.
"I didn't say anything to my folks, because I didn't know how you would feel about it. I thought I ought to ask you first. But I am not afraid to tell, you needn't think that, and I mean to be honorable. If you say so, I will go right home with you and tell your folks, and then I will tell mine, and we will see what we can do."
Maria made no answer. She was in agony. It seemed to her that the whisper was deafening her.
"I will leave school, and go to work right away," said the boy, and his voice was a little louder, and full of pathetic manliness; "and I guess in a year's time I could get so I could earn enough to support you. I mean to do what is right. All is I want to do what you want me to do. I didn't know how you felt about it."
Then Maria turned slightly. He leaned closer.
"I told you how I felt," she whispered back.
"You mean what you wrote?"
"Yes, what I wrote."
"You don't want me to tell at all?"
"Never, as long as you live."
"How about her?"
"Yes, confound her!"
"She won't tell. She won't dare to."
Wollaston was silent for a moment, then he whispered again. "Well," he said, "I want to do what you want me to and what is honorable. Of course, we are both young, and I haven't any money except what father gives me, but I am willing to quit school to-morrow and go to work. You needn't think I mean to back out and show the white feather. I am not that kind. We have got into this, and I am ready and willing to do all I can."
"I meant what I wrote," whispered Maria again. "I never want you to tell, and—"
"I wish you would go and sit somewhere else, and not speak to me again. I hate the very sight of you."
"All right," said the boy. There was a slight echo of rancor in his own voice, still it was patient, with the patience of a man with a woman and her unreason. All his temper of the night before had disappeared. He was quite honest in saying that he wished to do what was right and honorable. He was really much more of a man than he had been the day before. He was conscious of not loving Maria—his budding boy-love for her had been shocked out of life. He was even repelled by her, but he had a strong sense of his duty towards her, and he was full of pity for her. He saw how pale and nervous and frightened she was. He got up to change his seat, but before he went, he leaned over her and whispered again: "You need not be a mite afraid, Maria. All I want is what will please you and what is right. I will never tell, unless you ask me to. You need not worry. You had better put it all out of your mind."
Maria nodded. She felt very dizzy. She was glad when Wollaston not only left his seat, but the car, going into the smoker. She heard the door slam after him with a sense of relief. She felt a great relief at his assurance that he would keep their secret. Wollaston Lee was a boy whose promises had weight. She looked out of the window and a little of her old-time peace seemed to descend upon her. She saw how lovely the landscape was in the waning light. She saw the new moon with a great star attendant, and reflected that it was over her right shoulder. After all, youth is hard to down, and hope finds a rich soil in it. Then, too, a temporization to one who is young means eternity. If Wollaston did not tell, and Gladys did not tell, and she did not tell, it might all come right somehow in the end.
She looked at the crescent of the moon, and the great depth of light of the star, and her own affairs seemed to quiet her with their very littleness. What was little Maria Edgham and her ridiculous and tragic matrimonial tangle compared with the eternal light of those strange celestial things yonder? She would pass, and they would remain. She became comforted. She even reflected that she was hungry. She had not obeyed her father's injunction, and had eaten very little luncheon. She thought with pleasure of the good dinner which would be awaiting her. Then suddenly she remembered how she had talked to Her. How would she be treated? But she remembered that Ida could not have said anything against her to her father, or, if she had done so, it had made no difference to him. She considered Ida's character, and it seemed to her quite probable that she would make no further reference to the subject. Ida was averse even to pursuing enmities, because of the inconvenience which they might cause her. It was infinitely less trouble to allow birds which had pecked at her to fly away than to pursue them; then, too, she always remained unshaken in her belief in herself. Maria's tirade would not in the least have disturbed her self-love, and it is only a wound in self-love which can affect some people. Maria was inclined to think that Ida would receive her with the same coldly radiant smile as usual, and she was right. That night, when she entered the bright parlor, glowing with soft lights under art-shades, Ida, in her pretty house-gown—scarlet cashmere trimmed with medallions of cream lace—greeted her in the same fashion as she had always done. Evelyn ran forward with those squeals of love which only a baby can accomplish. Maria, hugging her little sister, saw that Ida's countenance was quite unchanged.
"So you have got home?" said she. "Is it very cold?"
"Not very," replied Maria.
"I have not been out, and I did not know," Ida said, in her usual fashion of making commonplaces appear like brilliances.
"There may be a frost, I don't know," Maria said. She was actually confused before this impenetrability. Remembering the awful things she had said to Her, she was suddenly conscience-stricken as she saw Ida's calm radiance of demeanor. She began to wonder if she had not been mistaken, if Ida was not really much better than she herself. She knew that is she had had such things said to her she could not have appeared so forgiving. Such absolute self-love, and self-belief, was incomprehensible to her. She had accused Ida of more than she could herself actually comprehend. She began to think Ida had a forgiving heart, and that she herself had been the wicked one, not She. She responded to everything which Ida said with a conciliatory air. Presently Harry came in. He was late. He looked very worn and tired. Ida sent Josephine up-stairs to get his smoking-jacket and slippers, and Maria thought She was very kind to her father. Evelyn climbed into his arms, but he greeted even her rather wearily. Ida noticed it.
"Come away, darling," she said. "Papa is tired, and you are a heavy little lump of honey," Ida smiled, entrancingly.
Harry looked at her with loving admiration, then at Maria.
"I tell you what it is, I feel pretty thankful to-night, when I think of last night—when I realize I have you all home," said he.
Ida smiled more radiantly. "Yes, we ought to be very thankful," she said.
Maria made up her mind that she would apologize to her if she had a chance. She did not wish to speak before her father, not because she did not wish him to know, but because she did not wish to annoy him, he looked so tired. She had a chance after dinner, when Josephine was putting Evelyn to bed, and Harry had been called to the door to speak to a man on business.
"I am sorry I spoke as I did to you," she said, in a low voice, to Ida.
They were both in the parlor. Maria had a school-book in her hand, and Ida was embroidering. The rosy shade of the lamp intensified the glow on her beautiful face. She looked smilingly at Maria.
"Why, my dear," she said, "I don't know what you said. I have forgotten."
Now commenced an odd period of her existence for Maria Edgham. She escaped a transition stage which comes to nearly every girl by her experience in New York, the night when Evelyn was lost. There is usually for a girl, if not for a boy, a stage of existence when she flutters, as it were, over the rose of life, neither lighting upon it nor leaving it, when she is not yet herself, when she does not comprehend herself at all, except by glimpses of emotions, as one may see one facet of a diamond but never the complete stone. Maria had, in a few hours, become settled, crystallized, and she gave evidence of it indisputably in one way—she had lost her dreams. When a girl no longer dreams of her future she has found herself. Maria had always been accustomed to go to sleep lulled by her dreams of innocent romance. Now she no longer had them, it was as if a child missed a lullaby. She was a long time in getting to sleep at all, and she did not sleep well. She no longer stared over the page of a lesson-book into her own future, as into a crystal well wherein she saw herself glorified by new and strange happiness. She studied, and took higher places in her classes, but she did not look as young or as well. She grew taller and thinner, and she looked older. People said Maria Edgham was losing her beauty, that she would not be as pretty a woman as she had promised to make, after all. Maria no longer dwelt so long and pleasurably upon her reflection in the glass. She simply arranged her hair and neck-gear tidily and went her way. She did not care so much for her pretty clothes. A girl without her dreams is a girl without her glory of youth. She did not quite realize what was the matter, but she knew that she was no longer so fair to see, and that the combination of herself and a new gown was not what it had been. She felt as if she had reached the last page of her book of life, and the ennui of middle age came over her. She had not reached the last page; she was, of course, mistaken; but she had reached a paragraph so tremendous that it seemed to her the climax, as if there could be nothing beyond it. She was married—that is, she had been pronounced a wife! There was, there could be, nothing further. She was both afraid of, and disliked, the boy who had married her. There was nothing ahead that she could see but a commonplace existence without romance and without love. She as yet did not dwell upon the possible complications which might arise from her marriage. It simply seemed to her that she should always live a spinster, although the marriage ceremony had been pronounced over her. She began to realize that in order to live in this way she must take definite steps. She knew that her father was not rich. The necessity for work and earning her own living in the future began to present itself. She made up her mind to fit herself for a teacher.
"Papa, I am going to teach," she told her father one afternoon.
Ida had gone out. It was two years after her marriage, and Maria looked quite a woman. She and her father were alone. Evelyn had gone to bed. Maria had tucked her in and kissed her good-night. Josephine was no longer a member of the family. In a number of ways expenses had been retrenched. Harry would not admit it, and Ida did not seem aware of it, but his health was slowly but surely failing. That very day he had consulted a specialist in New York, taking his turn in the long line of waiting applicants in the office. When he came out he had a curious expression on his face, which made more than one of the other patients, however engrossed in their own complaints, turn around and look after him. He looked paler than when he had entered the office, but not exactly cast down. He had rather a settled expression, as of one who had come in sight, not of a goal of triumph, but of the end of a long and wearisome journey. In these days Harry Edgham was so unutterably weary, he drove himself to his work with such lashes of spirit, that he was almost incapable of revolt against any sentence of fate. There comes a time to every one, to some when young, to some when old, that too great a burden of labor, or of days, renders the thought of the last bed of earth unterrifying. The spirit, overcome with weariness of matter, droops earthward with no rebellion. Harry, who had gotten his death-sentence, went out of the doctor's office and hailed his ferry-bound car, and realized very little difference in his attitude from what he had done before. He had still time before him, possibly quite a long time. He thought of leaving Ida and the little one and Maria, but he had a feeling as if he were beginning the traversing of a circle which would in the end bring him back, rather than of departure. It was as if he were about to circumnavigate life itself. Suddenly, however, his forehead contracted. Material matters began to irritate him. He thought of Maria, and how slight a provision he had made for her. His life was already insured for the benefit of Ida. Ida would have that and her widow's share. Little Evelyn would also have her share of his tiny estate, which consisted of nothing more than his house and lot in Edgham and a few hundreds in the bank, and poor Maria would have nothing except the paltry third remaining. When Maria, sitting alone with him in the parlor, announced her intention of fitting herself for a teacher, he viewed her with quick interest. It was the evening of the very day on which he had consulted the specialist.
"Let me see, dear," he returned; "how many years more have you at the academy?"
"I can graduate next year," Maria replied, with pride. This last year she had been taking enormous strides, which had placed her ahead of her class. "At least, I can if I work hard," she added.
"I don't want you to work too hard," Harry said, anxiously.
"I am perfectly well," said Maria. And she did in reality look entirely well, in spite of her thinness and expression of premature maturity. There was a wiriness about her every movement which argued, if not actual robustness, the elasticity of bending and not breaking before the stresses of life.
"Let me see, you will be pretty young to teach, then," said Harry.
"I think I can get a school," Maria said.
"Aunt Maria said she thought I could get that little school near her in Amity. The teacher is engaged, and she said she thought she would get married before so very long. She said she thought she must have almost enough money for her wedding outfit. That is what she has been working for."
Harry smiled a little.
"Aunt Maria said she was to marry a man with means, and she was working quite a while in order to buy a nice trousseau," said Maria. "Aunt Maria said she was a very high-spirited young lady. But she said she thought she had been engaged so long that she would probably not wait more than a year longer, and she could get the school for me. Uncle Henry is one of the committee, you know."
"You are pretty young to begin teaching," Harry said, thoughtfully.
"Aunt Maria said she thought I did not look as young as I really was, and there wouldn't be any difficulty about it," said Maria. "She said she thought I would have good government, and Uncle Henry thought so, too, and Aunt Eunice."
Aunt Eunice was Maria's Uncle Henry's wife. Maria had paid a visit to Amity the summer before, renewing her acquaintance with her relatives.
"Well, we will see," said Harry, after a pause. Then he added, somewhat pitifully: "Father wishes there was no need for his little girl to work. He wishes he had been able to put more by, but if—"
Maria looked at her father with quick concern.
"Father, what is the matter with you?" she asked. "I don't care about the working part. I want to work. I shall like to go to Amity, and board with Aunt Maria, and teach, except for leaving you and Evelyn, but—what is the matter with you, father?"
"Nothing is the matter. Why?" asked Harry; and he tried to smile.
"What made you speak so, father?"
Maria had sprung to her feet, and was standing in front of her father, with pale face and dilated eyes. Her father looked at her and hesitated.
"Tell me, father; I ought to know," said Maria.
"There is nothing immediate, as far as I know," said Harry, "but—"
"Well, dear, nobody can live always, and of course you can't realize it, young as you are, and with no responsibilities; but father is older, and sometimes he can't help thinking. He wishes he had been able to save a little more, in case anything happened to him, and he can't help planning what you would do if—anything happened to him. You know, dear," Harry hesitated a little, then he continued—"you know, dear, that father had his life insured for—Ida, and I doubt if—I am older, you know, now, and those companies don't like to take chances. I doubt if I could, or I would have an additional insurance put on my life for you. Then Ida would have by law her share of this property, and Evelyn her share, and all you would have would be a very little, and—Well, father can't help thinking that perhaps it would be wise for you to make some plans so you can help yourself a little, but—it almost breaks father's heart to think that—his—little girl—" Poor Harry fairly broke down and sobbed.
Maria's arm was around his neck in a moment, and his poor gray head, which had always been, in a way, the head of an innocent boy, was on her young girl breast. She did not ask him any more questions. She knew. "Poor father!" she said. Her own voice broke, then she steadied it again with a resolute effort of her will. There was a good deal of her mother in Maria. The sight of another's weakness always aroused her own strength. "Father," she said, "now you just listen to me. I won't hear any more talk of anything happening to you. You have not eaten enough lately. I have noticed it. That is all that ails you. You have not had enough nourishment. I want you to go to-morrow to Dr. Wells and get some of that tonic that helped you so much before, and, father, I want you to stop worrying about me. I honestly want to teach. I want to be independent. I should, if you were worth a million. It does not worry me at all to think I am not going to have enough money to live on without working, not at all. I want you to remember that, and not fret any more about it."
For answer, Harry sobbed against the girl's shoulder. "It seems as if I might have saved more," he said, pitifully, "but—I have had heavy expenses, and somehow I didn't seem to have the knack that some men have. I made one or two investments that didn't turn out well. I didn't say anything about them to—Ida."
"I sha'n't say a word, father," Maria responded, quickly.
"Well, I thought maybe—if they turned out all right, I might have something to leave you, but—they didn't. There's never any counting on those things, and I wasn't on the inside of the market. I thought they were all right. I meant it for the best."
Maria stroked the gray head, as her mother might have done. "Of course you did, father," said she. "Now, don't you worry one bit more about it. You get that tonic. You don't look just right, and you need something to give you an appetite; and don't you ever have another thought as far as I am concerned. I have always wanted to teach, or do something to make myself independent."
"You may marry somebody who will look out for you after father has gone," half whimpered Harry. His disease and his distress were making him fairly childish, now he realized a supporting love beside him.
Maria quivered a little. "I shall never marry, father," she said.
Harry laughed a little, even in the midst of his distress. "Well, dear, we won't worry about that now," he said; "only, if you ever do marry, I hope you will marry a good, honest man who can take care of you."
"I never shall marry," Maria said again. There was an odd inflection in her voice which her father did not understand. Her cheeks burned hot against his, but it was not due to the modesty of young girlhood, which flees even that which it secretly desires. Maria was reflecting upon her horrible deception, how every day and every minute of her life she was deceiving her father, but she dared not tell him. She dared less now than ever, in the light of her sudden conviction concerning his ill-health. Maria had been accustomed so long to seeing her father look tired and old that the true significance of it had not struck her. She had not reflected that her father was not in reality an old man—but scarcely past middle age—and that there must be some disease to account for his appearance. Now she knew; but along with the knowledge came the conviction that he must not know that she had it, that it would only add to his distress. She kissed him, and took up the evening paper which had fallen from his knees to the floor.
"Suppose I read to you, father?" she said.
Harry looked gratefully at her. "But you have to learn your lesson."
"Oh, I can finish that in school to-morrow. I don't feel like working any more to-night, and I do feel like reading the paper."
"Won't it tire you, dear?"
"Tire me? Now, father, what do you take me for?" Maria settled herself in a chair. Harry leaned back his head contentedly; he had always like to be read to, and lately reading to himself had hurt his eyes. "Now, what shall I read, father?" she said.
Poor Harry, remembering his own futile investments, asked for the stock-list, and Maria read it very intelligently for a young girl who knew nothing about stocks.
"Once I owned some of that stock," said Harry, proudly.
"Did you, father?" Maria responded, admiringly.
"Yes, and only look where it is now! If I could only have held on to it, I might have been quite a rich man."
Harry spoke, oddly enough, with no regret. Such was the childishness of the man that a possession once his never seemed wholly lost to him. It seemed to him that he had reason to be proud of having made such a wise investment, even if he had never actually reaped any benefit from it.
"I don't see how you knew what to invest in," Maria said, fostering his pride.
"Oh, I had to study the stock-lists and ask brokers," Harry replied. He looked brighter. This little reinstatement in his self-esteem acted like a tonic. In some fashion Ida always kept him alive to his own deficiencies, and that was not good for a man who was naturally humble-minded. Harry sat up straighter. He looked at Maria with brighter eyes as she continued reading. "Now that is a good investment," said he—"that bond. If I had the money to spare I would buy one of those bonds to-morrow morning."
"Are bonds better than stocks, father?" asked Maria.
"Yes," replied Harry, importantly. "Always remember that, if you have any money to invest. A man can afford to buy stocks, because he has better opportunities of judging of the trend of the market, but bonds are always safer for a woman."