Maria regarded her father again with that innocent admiration for his wisdom, which seemed to act like a nerve stimulant. A subtle physician might possibly have reached the conclusion, had he been fully aware of all the circumstances, that Ida, with her radiant superiority, her voiceless but none the less positive self-assertion over her husband, was actually a means of spiritual depression which had reacted upon his physical nature. Nobody knows exactly to what extent any of us are responsible for the lives of others, and how far our mere existences may be derogatory to our fellow-beings. Harry was visibly brighter.
"You don't look half as tired as you did, father," Maria said.
"I don't feel so tired," replied Harry. "It has rested me to hear you read. Remember what I have told you, dear, about bonds—always bonds, and never stocks, for a woman."
"Yes, father," said Maria. Then she added, "I am going to save all I can when I begin to earn."
"Your aunt Maria will only ask you enough board to make it possible for her to pay the bills? You know she has only a hundred a year to live on. Of course your uncle Henry lets her have her rent free, or she couldn't do it, but she is a fine manager. She manages very much as your mother did." As he spoke, Harry looked around the luxurious apartment and reflected that, had his first wife lived, he himself could have saved, and there might have been no need for this little, delicate girl to earn her own living. He sighed, and the weary look settled over his face again.
Maria rose. "Father," said she, "Annie has gone out, and so has Hannah, and I am going out in the kitchen and make a cup of that thick chocolate that you like, for you."
"It is too much trouble, dear."
"Nonsense!" said Maria. "I would like to do it, and it won't take a minute. There is a good fire in the range."
While Maria was gone, Harry sat gazing out of the window. He had always now, when he looked out of a window, the sensation of a man who was passing in rapid motion all the old familiar objects, all the landmarks of his life, or rather—for one never rids one's self of that particular optical delusion—it was as if they were passing. The conviction of one's own transit is difficult to achieve. Harry gazed out of the window, and it was to him as if the familiar trees which bordered the sidewalk, the shrubs in the yard, the houses which were within view, were flitting past him in a mad whirl. He was glad when Maria entered with the chocolate, in his own particular cup, and a dainty plate of cheese sandwiches.
"I thought perhaps you could eat a sandwich, father," she said. "I don't believe you had anything decent for lunch in New York."
"I didn't have much," said Harry. He did not add, what was the truth, that lately he had been stinting himself on his luncheons in the effort to save a little more of his earnings. He ate nearly all the sandwiches, and drank two cups of chocolate, and really looked much better.
"You need more nourishment, father," said Maria, with a wise, maternal air, which was also half accusatory, and which made Harry think so strongly of his first wife that he regarded Maria as he might have regarded her mother.
"You grow more and more like your own mother, dear," he said.
"Well, I am glad of that," replied Maria. "Mother was a good woman. If I can only be half as good as mother was."
"Your mother was a good woman," said Harry, reflectively; and as he spoke he seemed to feel the arms of strong, almost stern, feminity and faithfulness which had encompassed his childlike soul for so many years. He owned to himself that Maria's mother had been a much more suitable wife for him than this other woman. Then he had a little qualm of remorse, for Ida came in sight, richly dressed and elegant, as usual, with Evelyn dancing along beside her. Mrs. Adams was with her. Mrs. Adams was talking and Ida was smiling. It was more becoming to Ida to smile than to talk. She had discovered long since that she had not so very much to say, and that her smiles were better coin of her little realm; she therefore generally employed them in preference.
Maria got up hastily and took the tray and the chocolate-cups. "I guess Mrs. Adams is coming in," said she.
"You didn't make enough chocolate to give them?" Harry said, hesitatingly.
"No," replied Maria, and her tone was a little curt even to her father. "And I used up the last bit of chocolate in the house, too." Then she scudded out of the room with her tray and passed the front door as the sound of Ida's latch-key was heard in the lock. Maria set her tray on the kitchen-table and hurried up the back stairs to her own room. She entered it and locked both doors, the one communicating with the hall and the one which connected it with Evelyn's room. She had no sooner done so than she heard the quick patter of little feet, and the door leading into Evelyn's room was tried, then violently shaken. "Let me in, sister; let me in," cried the sweet little flute of a voice on the other side. Evelyn could now talk plainly, but she still kept to her baby appellation for her sister.
"No, darling, sister can't let you in now," replied Maria.
"Why not? Let me in, sister."
"Sister is going to study," said Maria, in a firm voice. "She can't have Evelyn. Run down-stairs, darling; run down to mamma."
"Evelyn don't want mamma. Evelyn wants sister."
"Papa is down there, too. Put on your clothes, like a nice girl, and show papa how smart you can be; then run down."
"Evelyn can't button up her dress."
"Put everything on but that, then run down, and mamma can do it for you."
"Let me in, sister."
"No, dear," Maria said again. "Evelyn can't come in now."
There came a little whimper of grief and anger which cut Maria's heart, but she was firm. She could not have even Evelyn then. She had to be alone with the knowledge she had just gained of her father's state of health. She sat down in her little chair by the window; it was her own baby chair, which she had kept all these years, and in which she could still sit comfortably, she was so slender. Then she put her face in her hands and began to weep. She had never wept as she did then, not even when her mother died. She was so much younger when her mother died that her sensibilities had not acquired their full acumen; then, too, she had not had at that time the awful foretaste of a desolate future which tinctured with bitter her very soul. Somehow, although Maria had noticed for a long time that her father did not look as he had done, it had never occurred to her that that which had happened to her mother could happen to her father. She had been like one in a house which has been struck by lightning, and had been rendered thereby incredulous of a second stroke. It had not occurred to her that whereas she had lost her mother, she could also lose her father. It seemed like too heavy a hammer-stroke of Providence to believe in and keep her reason. She had thought that her father was losing his youth, that his hair turning gray had much to do with his altered looks. She had never thought of death. It seemed to her monstrous. A rage against Providence, like nothing which she had known before, was over her. Why should she lose everything? What had she done? She reviewed her past life, and she defended herself like Job, with her summary of self-righteousness. She had always done right, so far as she knew. Her sins had been so petty as hardly to deserve the name of sins. She remembered how she had once enjoyed seeing her face in her looking-glass, how she had liked pretty, new dresses, and she could not make that seem very culpable. She remembered how, although she had never loved her step-mother, she had observed, except on that one occasion when Evelyn was lost, the utmost respect and deference for her—how she had been, after the first, even willing to love her had she met with the slightest encouragement. She could not honestly blame herself for her carefully concealed attitude of disapproval towards Ida, for she said to herself, with a subtlety which was strange for a girl so young, that she had merited it, that she was a cold, hard, self-centred woman, not deserving love, and that she had in reality been injurious for her father. She was convinced that, had her own mother lived, with her half-censorious yet wholly loving care for him, he might still have preserved his youth and his handsome boyishness and health. She thought of the half-absurd, half-tragic secret which underlay her life, and she could not honestly think herself very much to blame for that. She always thought of that with bewilderment, as one might think of some dimly remembered vagary of delirium. Sometimes it seemed to her now that it could not be true. Maria realized that she was full of self-righteousness, but she was also honest. She saw no need for her to blame herself for faults which she had not committed. She thought of the doctrine which she had heard, that children were wholly evil from their birth, and it did not seem to her true. She could say that she had been wholly evil from her birth, but she felt that she should, if she did say so, tell a lie to God and herself. She honestly could not see why, for any fault of hers, her father should die. Then suddenly her mind gave a leap from her own standing-point to that of her father. She suddenly reflected that it was not wholly her own grief for his loss which was to be considered, but her father's grief at quitting the world wherein he had dwelt so long, and his old loves of life. She reflected upon his possible fear of the Unknown into which he was to go. There was in Maria's love for her father, as there had been in her mother's, a strong element of the maternal. She thought of her father with infinite pity, as one might think of a little child about to go on a long, strange journey to an unknown place, all alone by himself. It seemed to her an awful thing for God to ask one like her father to die a lingering death, to realize it all fully, what he had to do, then to go off by himself, alone. She remembered what she had heard from the pulpit on Sundays, but somehow that Unknown seemed so frightfully wide and vast for a soul like her father's, which had always been so like the soul of a child, to find her mother in. Then she got some comfort from the memory of her mother, of her great strength. It seemed to her that her mother, wherever she was, would not let her father wander alone very long. That she would meet him with that love and chiding which is sometimes the very concert-pitch of love itself, its key-note, and lead him into those green pastures and beside those still waters of the Psalmist. Maria, at that moment, got more comfort from her memory of the masterliness of her mother, whom she had known, than from her conception of God, towards whom her soul reached out, it is true, but whom it no more comprehended than a flower comprehends the sun. The very love of God needs a human trellis whereby His creatures can reach Him, and Maria now climbed towards a trust in Him, by the reflection of her mother's love, and strength in spite of love.
Then racking pity for herself and her own loss, and rage because of it, and a pity for her father which almost roused her to a fury of rebellion, again swept away every other consideration.
"Poor father! poor father!" she sobbed, under her breath. "There he is going to die, and he hasn't got mother to take care of him! She won't do anything. She will try not to smile, that is all. And I can't do anything, the way mother could. Father don't want me to even act as if I knew it; but if mother were alive he would tell her, and she would help him." Then Maria thought of herself, poor, solitary, female thing travelling the world alone, for she never thought, at that time, of her marriage being anything which would ever be a marriage in reality, but as of something which cast her outside the pale of possibilities and made her more solitary still, and she wept silently, or as silently as she could; once in awhile a murmur of agony or a sob escaped her. She could not help it. She got up out of her little chair and flung herself on the floor, and fairly writhed with the pain of her awful grief and sense of loss. She became deaf to any sound; all her senses seemed to have failed her. She was alive only to that sense of grief which is the primeval sense of the world—the grief of existence itself and the necessity of death and loss.
All at once she felt a little, soft touch, and another little, weeping, human thing, born like herself to all the awful chances of love and grief, flung itself down beside her.
Maria had locked her doors, but she had forgotten her window, which opened on an upper balcony, and was easily accessible to any one climbing out of the hall window. Evelyn had been listening at her door and had heard her sobs. Knowing from experience that her sister meant what she said, she had climbed out of the hall window, scudded along the little balcony, and into Maria's window. She flung herself down on the floor, and wept so violently that Maria was alarmed.
"Why, baby, darling, what is it? Tell sister," she said, hushing her own sobs.
The child continued to sob. Her whole little frame was shaken convulsively.
"Tell sister," whispered Maria.
"I'm cryin' 'cause—'cause—" panted the child.
"Because what, darling?"
"Because you are crying, and—and—"
"'Cause I 'ain't got anything to cry for."
"Why, you precious darling!" said Maria. She hugged the child close, and all at once a sense of peace and comfort came over her, even in the face of approaching disaster. She sensed the love and pity which holds the world, through this little human key-note of it which had struck in her ears.
Harry Edgham's disease proved to be one of those concerning which no physician can accurately calculate its duration or termination. It had, as diseases often have, its periods of such utter quiescence that it seemed as if it had entirely disappeared. It was not a year after Harry had received his indeterminate death sentence before he looked better than he had done for a long while. The color came back to his cheeks, his expression regained its youthful joyfulness. Everybody said that Harry Edgham was quite well again. He had observed a certain diet and taken remedies; then, in the summer, he took, for the first time for years, an entire vacation of three weeks, and that had its effect for the better.
Maria began to be quite easy with regard to her father's health. It seemed to her that, since he looked so well, he must be well. Her last winter at the Lowe Academy was entirely free from that worriment. Then, too, Wollaston Lee had graduated and begun his college course, and she no longer had him constantly before her eyes, bringing to memory that bewildering, almost maddening experience of theirs that night in New York. She was almost happy, in an odd, middle-aged sort of fashion, during her last term at the academy before her graduation. She took great pride in her progress in her studies. She was to graduate first of her class. She did not even have to work very hard to accomplish it. Maria had a mind of marvellous quickness of grasp. Possibly her retentive powers were not entirely in proportion, but, at all events, she accomplished much with comparatively little labor.
Harry was very proud of her. The evening before her graduation Ida had gone to New York to the theatre and Evelyn was in bed, and Maria dressed herself in her graduation gown, which was charming—Ida had never neglected her, in respect to dress, at least—and came down to show herself to her father. He would not be able to be present at the graduation on account of an unusual press of business. Maria came so lightly that she almost seemed to float into the room, with her fine white draperies trailing behind her and her knots of white ribbon fluttering, and stood before her father.
"Father," said she, "I want you to see the way I'll look to-morrow. Isn't this dress pretty?"
"Lovely," said Harry. "It is very becoming, too," he added.
Indeed, Maria really looked pretty again in this charming costume. During the last few months her cheeks had filled out and she had gotten some lovely curves of girlhood. Her eyes shone with a peculiar brilliancy, her red lips trembled into a smile, her hair, in a fluff above her high forehead, caught the light.
Maria laughed gayly. "Take care, father, or you will make me vain," she said.
"You have some reason to be," Harry said, honestly. "You are going to graduate first in your class, and—well, you are pretty, dear—at least you are to father, and, I guess, to other folks."
Maria blushed. "Only to father, because he is partial," she said. Then she went up to him and rubbed her blooming cheek against his. "Do you know what makes me happier than anything else?" she said—"happier than graduating first, happier than my pretty dress, happier than anything?"
"No. What, dear?"
"Feeling that you are well again."
There was an almost imperceptible pause before Harry replied. Then he said, in his pleasant voice, which had never grown old, "Yes, dear; I am better, dear, I think."
"Think," Maria said, gayly. "Why, you are well, father. Don't you know you are well?"
"Yes, I think I am better, dear."
"Better? You are well. Nobody can look as young and handsome as you do and be ill, possibly. You are well, father. I know you can't quite get what that horrid old croaking doctor told you out of your mind, but doctors don't know everything. You are well, and that makes me happier than anything else in the world."
Harry laughed a little faintly. "Well, I dare say you are right, dear," he said.
"Right?—of course I am right," said Maria. Then she danced off to change her gown.
After she had gone, Harry rose from the chair; he had been sitting beside the centre-table with the evening paper. He walked over to the window and looked out at the night. It was bright moonlight. The trees were in full leaf, and the shadows were of such loveliness that they fairly seemed celestial. Harry gazed out at the night scene, at the moon riding through the unbelievable and unfathomable blue of the sky, like a crystal ball, with a slight following of golden clouds; he gazed at the fairy shadows which transformed the familiar village street into something beyond earth, and he sighed. The conviction of his approaching dissolution had never been so strong as at that moment. He seemed fairly to see his own mortality—that gate of death which lay wide open for him. Yet, all at once, a sense of peace and trust almost ineffable came over him. Death seemed merely the going-out into the true open, the essence of the moonlight and the beauty. It seemed the tasting and absorbing the food for his own spiritual hunger, which had been upon him from birth, that which had always been just out of his reach. When Maria returned in her pink gingham school-gown, she found her father seated beside the table as he had been when she left. He looked up at her with a bright smile which somehow chilled her, although she tried to drive the conviction of the chill from her mind. She got a new book from the case, and proposed reading aloud to him.
"Hadn't you better go to bed, dear?" said Harry. "You will have a hard day to-morrow."
"No; I am going to sit up with you till She comes home," said Maria, "and we might as well amuse ourselves." She began to read, and Harry listened happily. But Maria, whenever she glanced over her book at her father's happy face, felt the same undefinable chill.
However, when Ida came home and they had a little supper of sardines and crackers, she did not think any more of it. She went to bed with her head full of the morrow and her new gown and the glories awaiting her. She tried not to be vain, but was uncomfortably conscious that she was glad that she was first in her class, instead of some other girl or instead of a boy. Maria felt especially proud of ranking ahead of the boys.
The next day was, as she had anticipated, one of happy triumph for her. She stood on the stage in her lovely dress and read her valedictory, which, although trite enough, was in reality rather better in style than most valedictories. She received a number of presents, a tiny gold watch from her father among them, and a ring with a turquoise stone from Ida, and quantities of flowers. The day after the graduation Maria had her photograph taken, with all her floral offerings around her, with a basket of roses on her arm and great bouquets in her lap and on a little photographic table beside her. The basket of roses was an anonymous offering. It came with no card. If Maria had dreamed that Wollaston Lee had sent it, she would never have sat for her photograph with it on her arm. But she did not think of Wollaston at all that day. He was completely out of her mind for the time, swallowed up in her sense of personal joy and triumph. Wollaston had not graduated first in his class in the academy the year before. A girl had headed that class also. Maria had felt a malicious joy at the fact, at the time, and it was entirely beyond her imagination now that Wollaston, who had seemed to dislike her, although she was forced to admit that he had been exceedingly honorable, had sent roses to her. She suspected that one of the teachers, a young man who had paid, in a covert and shamefaced way, a little attention to her, had sent the basket. She thought the roses lovely, and recognized the inadvisability of thanking this teacher, since he had not enclosed his card. She did not like him very well—indeed, she felt a certain repugnance to him—but roses were roses, and she was a young girl.
"Who gave you the basket of roses, dear?" her father asked when she was displaying her trophies the day after her graduation.
Maria blushed. "I don't know," said she; "there wasn't any card with them." As she spoke she seemed to see the face of the young history teacher, Mr. Latimer, with his sparse, sandy beard, and she felt how very distasteful he was to her, even if gilded, so to speak, by roses.
"I think some enamoured boy in her class who was too shy to send his card with his floral offering was the one," Ida said to Harry when Maria had gone out. She laughed a softly sarcastic laugh.
Harry looked at her uneasily.
"Maria is too young to get such ideas into her head," he said.
"My dear," said Ida, "you forget that such ideas do not get into girls' heads; they are born in them."
"I presume one of the other girls sent them," said Harry, almost angrily.
"Perhaps," replied Ida, and again she laughed her soft, sarcastic laugh, which grated terribly on Harry. It irritated him beyond measure that any boy should send roses to this little, delicate, fair girl of his. For all he had spoken of her marriage, the very idea of confiding her to any other man than himself made him furious. Especially the idea of some rough school-boy, who knew little else than to tumble about in a football game and was not his girl's mental equal, irritated him. He went over in his mind all the boys in her class. The next morning, going to New York, Edwin Shaw, who had lost much of his uncouthness and had divorced himself entirely from his family in the matter of English, was on the train, and he scowled at him with such inscrutable fierceness that the boy fairly trembled. He always bowed punctiliously to Maria's father, and this morning Maria was with her father. She was to have a day off: sit in her father's office and read a book until noon, then go to lunch with him at a French restaurant, then go to the matinee. She wore a festive silk waist, and looked altogether lovely, the boy thought.
"Who is that great gawk of a fellow?" asked Harry of Maria.
"Edwin Shaw. He was in my class," replied Maria, and she blushed, for no earthly reason except that her father expected her to do so. Young girls are sometimes very ready, even to deceit, to meet the emotional expectations of their elders. Harry then and there made up his mind that Edwin Shaw was the sender of the basket of roses.
"He comes of a family below par, and he shows it," he said, viciously, to Maria. He scowled again at Edwin's neck, which was awkwardly long above his collar, but the boy did not see it. He sat on the opposite side of the car a seat in advance.
Harry said again to Maria, when they had left the train, and Edwin, conscious of his back, which he was straightening, was striding in front of them, what a great gawk of a fellow he was, and how he came of a family below par. Maria assented indifferently. She did not dream of her father's state of mind, and, as for Edwin Shaw, he was no more to her than a set of car-steps, not so much, because the car-steps were of obvious use.
That very night, when Maria and her father reached home after a riotous day in the city, there was a letter in the post-office from Aunt Maria, to the effect that there was no doubt that Maria could have the school in Amity in the fall. The teacher who had held the position was to be married in a few weeks. The salary was not much—Amity was a poor little country village—but Maria felt as if she had expectations of untold wealth. She was sorry at the prospect of leaving her father and Evelyn, but the idea of self-support and independence, and taking a little of the burden from her father, intoxicated her. Maria had the true spirit of the women of her race. She liked the feel of her own muscles and nerves of individuality and self-reliance. She felt a head taller after she had read her aunt's letter.
"She says she will board me for four dollars a week," she said. "I shall have quite a lot of money clear."
"Well, four dollars a week will recompense her, and help her, too," said Harry, a little gloomily. To tell the truth, he did not in the least like the idea of Maria's going to Amity to teach. Nothing except the inner knowledge of his own failing health could have led him to consent to it. Ida was delighted at the news, but she concealed her delight as well as her annoyance under her smiling mask, and immediately began to make plans for Maria's wardrobe.
"Whatever I have new I am going to pay you back, father, now I am going to earn money," Maria said, proudly.
After she went up-stairs to bed that night, Evelyn, who was now a slim, beautiful little girl, rather tall for her age, and going to a private school in the village, came into her room, and Maria told Evelyn how much she was going to do with the money which she was to earn. Maria, at this time, was wholly mercenary. She had not the least ambition to benefit the young. She was, in fact, young herself, but her head was fairly turned with the most selfish of considerations. It was true that she planned to spend the money which she would earn largely upon others, but that was, in itself, a subtle, more rarefied form of selfishness.
"I remember Aunt Maria's parlor carpet was worn almost threadbare, and I mean to buy her a new one with the very first money I earn," Maria said to little Evelyn; and she thought, as she met Evelyn's beautiful, admiring eyes, how very kind and thoughtful she, Maria, would be with her wealth.
"I suppose Aunt Maria is very poor," Evelyn remarked, in her charming little voice.
"Oh, very. She lives on a hundred dollars a year."
"Will you get enough to eat?" asked Evelyn, anxiously.
"Oh yes. I shall pay her four dollars a week, and if she got along with only a hundred a year, only think what she can do with that. I know Aunt Eunice, Uncle Henry's wife, hasn't a good dress, either. I think I shall buy a brown satin for her."
"How awful good you are, sister!" said little Evelyn, and Maria quite agreed with her. The conviction of her own goodness, and her forthcoming power to exercise it, filled her soul with a gentle, stimulating warmth after she was in bed. The moonlight shone brightly into her room. She gazed at the bright shaft of silver it made across all her familiar possessions, and, notwithstanding her young girl dreams were gone, she realized that, although she had lost all the usual celestial dreams and rafters of romance which go to make a young girl's air-castle, she had still left some material, even if of less importance.
She spent, on the whole, a very happy summer. Her father looked entirely well; she was busy in preparations for her life in Amity; and, what relieved her the most, Wollaston Lee was not at home for more than five days during the entire vacation. He went camping-out with a party of college-boys. Maria was, therefore, not subjected to the nervous strain of seeing him. During the few days he was at home he had his chum with him, and Maria only saw him twice—once on the street, when she returned his bow distantly and heard with no pleasure the other boy ask who that pretty girl was, and once in church. She gave only the merest side-glance at him in church, and she was not sure that he looked at her at all, but she went home pale and nervous. A secret of any kind is a hard thing for a girl to bear about with her, and Maria's, which was both tragic and absurd, was severer than most. At times it seemed to her, when she looked in her glass, that all she saw was the secret; it seemed to her, when other people looked at her, that it was all they saw. It was one reason for her readiness to go to Amity. She would there be out of reach of people who could in any way have penetrated her secret. She would not run the risk of meeting Wollaston; of meeting his father and mother, and wondering if he had, after all, told; of meeting Gladys Mann, and wondering if she had told, and knowing that she knew.
Maria, in these last months, saw very little of Gladys, who had sunken entirely into the lower stratum of society in which she belonged. Gladys had left school, where she had not learned much, and she went out cleaning and doing house-work, at seventy-five cents a day. Sometimes Maria met her going to and fro from a place of employment, and at such times there was fear in Maria's face and a pathetic admiration and reassurance in the other girl's. Gladys had grown hard and large as to her bones and muscles, but she did not look altogether well. She had a half-nourished, spiritually and bodily, expression, which did not belie the true state of affairs with her. She had neither enough meat nor enough ideality. She was suffering, and the more because she did not know. Gladys was of the opinion that she was, on the whole, enjoying life and having a pretty good time. She earned enough to buy herself some showy clothes, and she had a lover, a "steady," as she called him. It is true that she was at times a little harassed by jealousy concerning another girl who had a more fully blown beauty than she, and upon whom she sometimes suspected her lover was casting admiring eyes.
It was at this time that Gladys, whose whole literature consisted of the more pictorial of the daily papers, wrote some badly spelled and very pathetic little letters, asking advice as to whether a girl of her age, who had been keeping steady company with a young man of her lover's age, whom she dearly loved, should make advances if he seemed to exhibit a preference for another girl, and she inquired pitifully of the editor, as of some deity, as to whether she thought her lover did really prefer the other girl to her. These letters, and the answers, were a source of immense comfort to Gladys. Sometimes, when she met Maria, they made her feel almost on terms of equality with her. She doubted if Maria, smart as she was, had ever really appeared in the papers. She wrote her letters under different names, and even sent them from neighboring towns, and walked long distances, when she felt that she wanted to save car-fare, to post them. Once Maria met her as she was walking along with an evening paper in her hand, reading the reply to one of her letters, and Maria wondered at the expression on Gladys's face. She at once pitied, feared, and detested Gladys. She doubted if she were a good girl; she herself, like a nun without even dreams, seemed living in another sphere, she felt so far removed. She was in reality removed, although Gladys, if the truth were told, was not so bad, and she got some good advice from the answers in response to her letters, which restrained her. Still, her view of everything was different. She was different. Black was not as black to her as to Maria; a spade was not so truly a spade. She recognized immorality as a fact, but it did not seem to her of so much importance. In one sense she was more innocent even than Maria, for she had never felt the true living clutch of vice on her soul, even in imagination; she could not. The devil to her was not of enough consequence to enable her to sin in the truest sense of the word. All her family were immoral, and a constant living in an atmosphere of immorality may, in one sense, make one incapable of spiritual sin. One needs to fully sense a sin in order to actually commit it. Gladys could hardly sense sin as Maria could. Still she had a sense of proud virtue after reading the paragraphs of good advice in reply to her letters to the paper, and she felt that it placed her nearer Maria's level. On the occasion when Maria met her reading the paper, she even spoke.
"Hullo, M'ria!" said she.
"Good-evening," Maria replied, politely and haughtily.
But Gladys did not seem to notice the haughtiness. She pressed close to Maria.
"Say!" said she.
"What?" asked Maria.
"Ain't you ever goin' to—?"
"No, I am not," replied Maria, deadly pale, and trembling from head to foot.
"Why don't you write to this paper and ask what you had better do?" said Gladys. "It's an awful good plan. You do git awful good advice."
"I don't wish to," replied Maria, trying to pass, but Gladys stood in her way.
"But say, M'ria, you be in an awful box," said she. "You can't never marry nobody else without you get locked up, you know."
"I don't want to," Maria said, shortly.
"Mebbe you will."
"I never shall."
"Well, if you do, you had better write to this paper, then you can find out just what to do. It won't tell you to do nothin' wrong, and it's awful sensible. Say, M'ria."
"I 'ain't never told a living soul, and I never shall, but I don't see what you are goin' to do if either you or him wants to git married to anybody else."
"I am not worrying about getting married," said Maria. This time she pushed past Gladys. Her knees fairly knocked together.
Gladys looked at her with sympathy and the old little-girl love and adoration. "Well, don't you worry about me tellin'," said she.
Maria began her teaching on a September day. It was raining hard, but there was all about an odd, fictitious golden light from the spray of maple-leaves which overhung the village. Amity was a typical little New England village—that is, it had departed but little from its original type, although there was now a large plant of paper-mills, which had called in outsiders. The outsiders were established by themselves on a sort of Tom Tidler's ground called "Across the River." The river was little more than a brook, except in spring, when, after heavy snows, it sometimes verified its name of the Ramsey River. Ramsey was an old family name in Amity, as Edgham was in Edgham. Once, indeed, the little village had been called Ramsey Four Corners. Then the old Ramsey family waned and grew less in popular esteem, and one day the question of the appropriateness of naming the village after them came up. There was another old family, by the name of Saunders, between whom and the Ramseys had always been a dignified New England feud. The Saunders had held their own much better than the Ramseys. There was one branch especially, to which Judge Josiah Saunders belonged, which was still notable. Judge Josiah had served in the State legislature, he was a judge of the superior court, and he occupied the best house in Amity, a fine specimen of the old colonial mansion house, which had been in the Saunders family for generations. Judge Saunders had made additions to this old mansion, conservative, modern colonial additions, and it was really a noble building. It was shortly after he had made the additions to his house, and had served his first term as judge of the superior court, that the question of changing the name of the village from Ramsey Four Corners to Saunders had been broached. Meetings had been held, in which the name of our celebrated townsman, the Honorable Josiah Saunders, had been on every tongue. The Ramsey family obtained scant recognition for past merits, but a becoming silence had been maintained as to their present status. The only recognized survivors of the old house of Ramsey at that time were the widow, Amelia Ramsey, the wife of Anderson Ramsey, deceased, as she appeared in the minutes of the meetings, and her son George, a lad of sixteen, and the same who, in patched attire, had made love to Maria over the garden fence when she was a child. It was about that time that the meetings were taking place, and the name of the village had been changed to Amity. It had been held to be a happy, even a noble and generous thought, on the part of Josiah Saunders. "Would that in such wise, by a combination of poetical aspirations and practical deeds, all differences might be adjusted upon this globe," said the Amity Argus, in an account of the meeting. Thenceforth, Ramsey Four Corners became Amity, and the most genteel of the ladies had Amity engraved on their note-paper.
Mrs. Amelia Ramsey and George, who had suffered somewhat in their feelings, in spite of the poetical adjustment of the difference, had no note-paper. They were poor, else Amity might never have been. They lived in a house which had been, in its day, as pretentious as the Saunders mansion. At the time of Maria's first visit to Amity it had been a weather-beaten old structure, which had not been painted for years, and had a curious effect as of a blur on the landscape, with its roof and walls of rain and sun stained shingles and clapboards, its leaning chimneys, and its Corinthian pillars widely out of the perpendicular, supporting crazily the roofs of the double veranda. When Maria went to Amity to begin teaching, the old house had undergone a transformation. She gazed at it with amazement out of the sitting-room window, which faced it, on the afternoon of her arrival.
"Why, what has happened to the old Ramsey house?" she asked her aunt Maria.
"Well, in the first place, a cousin died and left them some money," replied Aunt Maria. "It was a matter of ten thousand dollars. Then Amelia and George went right to work and fixed up the house. It was none of my business, but it seemed dreadful silly to me. If I had been in their place, I'd have let that old ramshackle of a place go to pot and bought a nice little new house. There was one they could have got for fifteen hundred dollars, on this side of the river; but no, they went to work, and they must have laid out three thousand clear on that old thing."
"It is beautiful!" said Maria, regarding it with admiration.
"Well, I don't think it's very beautiful, but everybody to their liking," replied Aunt Maria, with a sniff of her high, transparent nostrils. "For my part, I'd rather have a little, clean new house before all the old ones, that folks have died in and worried in, in creation."
But Maria continued to regard the renovated Ramsey house with admiration. It stood close to the street, as is the case with so many old houses in rural New England. It had a tiny brick strip of yard in front, on which was set, on either side of the stoop, a great century-plant in a pot. Above them rose a curving flight of steps to a broad veranda, supported with Corinthian pillars, which were now upright and glistening with white paint, as was the entire house.
"They had it all fixed up, inside and out," said Aunt Maria. "There wasn't a room but was painted and papered, and a good many had to be plastered. They did not get much new furniture, though. I should have thought they'd wanted to. All they've got is awful old. But I heard George Ramsey say he wouldn't swap one of those old mahogany pieces for the best new thing to be bought. Well, everybody to their taste. If I had had my house all fixed up that way, I should have wanted new furniture to correspond."
"What is George Ramsey doing?" asked Maria, with a little, conscious blush of which she was ashamed. Maria, all her life, would blush because people expected it of her. She knew as plainly as if she had spoken, that her aunt Maria was considering suddenly the advantages of a possible match between herself and George Ramsey. What Aunt Maria said immediately confirmed this opinion. She spoke with a sort of chary praise of George. Aunt Maria had in reality never liked the Ramseys; she considered that they felt above her, and for no good reason; still, she had an eye for the main chance. It flashed swiftly across her mind that her niece was pretty, and George might lose his heart to her and marry her, and then Mrs. Amelia Ramsey might have to treat her like an equal and no longer hold her old, aristocratic head so high.
"Well," said she, "I suppose George Ramsey is pretty smart. They say he is. I guess he favors his grandfather. His father wasn't any too bright, if he was a Ramsey. George Ramsey, they say, worked his way through college, used to be bell-boy or waiter or something in a hotel summers, unbeknown to his mother. Amelia Ramsey would have had a conniption fit if she had known that her precious boy was working out. She used to talk as grand as you please about George's being away on his vacation. Maybe she did know, but if she did she never let on. I don't know as she let on even to herself. Amelia Ramsey is one of the kind who can shut their eyes even when they look at themselves. There never was a lookin'-glass made that could show Amelia Ramsey anything she didn't want to see. I never had any patience with her. I believe in being proud if you've got anything to be proud of, but I don't see any sense in it otherwise. Anyhow, I guess George is doing pretty well. A distant relation of his mother, an Allen, not a Ramsey, got a place in a bank for him, they say, and he gets good pay. I heard it was three thousand a year, but I don't believe it. He ain't much over twenty, and it ain't likely. I don't know jest how old he is. He's some older than you."
"He's a good deal older than I," said Maria, remembering sundry confidences with the tall, lanky boy over the garden fence.
"Well, I don't know but he is," said Aunt Maria, "but I don't believe he gets three thousand a year, anyhow."
The next morning Maria, on her way to school in the rain, passing under the unconquerable golden glow of the maples, cast a surreptitious glance at the old Ramsey house as she passed. It had been wonderfully changed for the better. Even the garden at the side next her aunt's house was no longer a weedy enclosure, but displayed an array of hardy flowers which the frost had not yet affected. Marigolds tossed their golden and russet balls through the misty wind of the rain, princess-feathers waved bravely, and chrysanthemums showed in gorgeous clumps of rose and yellow and white. As she passed, a tidy maid emerged from the front door and began sweeping out the rain which had lodged in the old hollows of the stone stoop, worn by the steps of generations. The rain flew before her plying broom in a white foam. The maid wore a cap and a wide, white apron. Maria reflected that the Ramseys had indeed come into palmier days, since they kept a maid so attired. She thought of George Ramsey with his patched trousers, and again the old feeling of repulsion and wonder at herself that she could have had romantic dreams about him came over her. Maria felt unutterably old that morning, and yet she had a little, childish dread of her new duties. She was in reality afraid of the school-children, although she did not show it. She got through the day very creditably, although that night she was tired as she had never been in her life, and, curiously enough, her sense of smell seemed to be the most affected. Many of her pupils came from poor families, the families of operatives in the paper-mills, and their garments were shabby and unclean. Soaked with rain, they gave out pungent odors. Maria's sense of smell was very highly developed. It seemed to her that her very soul was permeated, her very thoughts and imagination, with the odor of damp, unclean clothing, of draggled gowns and wraps and hats and wet leather. She could not eat her supper; she could not eat the luncheon which her aunt had put up for her, since the school being a mile away, it was too far to walk home for the noonday dinner in the rain.
"You 'ain't eat hardly a mite of luncheon," Aunt Maria said when she opened the box.
"I did not feel very hungry," Maria replied, apologetically.
"If you don't eat, you'll never hold out school-teaching in the world," said Aunt Maria.
She repeated it when Maria scarcely tasted her supper, although it was a nice one—cold ham, and scrambled eggs, scrambled with cream, and delicious slabs of layer-cake. "You'll never hold out in the world if you don't eat," said she.
"To tell the truth," replied Maria, "I can smell those poor children's wet clothes so that it has taken away all my appetite."
"Land! you'll have to get over that," said Aunt Maria.
"It seems to me that everything smells and tastes of wet, dirty clothes and shoes," said Maria.
"You'll have to learn not to be so particular," said Aunt Maria, and she spoke with the same affectionate severity that Maria remembered in her mother. "Put it out of your mind," she added.
"I can't," said Maria, and a qualm of nausea came over her. It was as if the damp, unclean garments and the wet shoes were pressed close under her nostrils. She looked pale.
"Well, drink your tea, anyhow," said Aunt Maria, with a glance at her.
After supper Aunt Maria, going into the other side of the house to borrow some yeast, said to her brother Henry that she did not believe that Maria would hold out to teach school. "She has come home sick on account of the smells the very first day," said she, "and she hasn't eat her supper, and she scarcely touched her luncheon."
Henry Stillman laughed, a bitter, sardonic laugh which he had acquired of late years. "Oh, well, she will get used to it," he replied. "Don't you worry, Maria. She will get used to it. The smell of the poor is the smell of the world. Heaven itself must be full of it."
His wife eyed him with a half-frightened air. "Why, don't talk so, Henry!" she said.
Henry Stillman laughed, half sardonically, half tenderly. "It is so, my dear," he said, "but don't you worry about it."
In these days Henry Stillman, although always maintaining his gentle manner towards children and women, had become, in the depths of his long-suffering heart, a rebel against fate. He had borne too long that burden which is the heaviest and most ignoble in the world, the burden of a sense of injury. He knew that he was fitted for better things than he had. He thought that it was not his own personal fault that he did not have them, and his very soul was curdling with a conviction of wrong, both at the hands of men and God. In these days he ceased going to church. He watched his wife and sister set out every Sunday, and he stayed at home. He got a certain satisfaction out of that. All who realize an injury have an amount of childishness in acts of retaliation. He, Henry Stillman, actually had a conviction that he was showing recrimination and wounding fate, which had so injured him, if only with a pin-prick, by staying away from church. After Maria came to live with them, she, too, went to church, but he did not view her with the same sardonic air that he did the older women, who had remained true to their faith in the face of disaster. He looked at Maria, in her pretty little best gowns and hats, setting forth, and a sweet tenderness for her love of God and belief sweetened his own agnosticism. He would not for the world have said a word to weaken the girl's faith nor to have kept her away from church. He would have urged her to go had she manifested the slightest inclination to remain at home. He was in a manner jealous of the girl's losing what he had himself lost. He tried to refrain from airing his morbid, bitter views of life to his wife, but once in a while he could not restrain himself as now. However, he laughed so naturally, and asked Maria, who presently came in, how many pupils had been present, and how she liked school-teaching, that his wife began to think that he had not been in earnest.
"They are such poor, dirty little things," Maria said, "and their clothes were wet, and—and—" A look of nausea overspread her face.
"You will get used to that," said her uncle, laughing pleasantly. "Eunice, haven't we got some cologne somewhere?"
Eunice got a bottle of cologne, which was seldom used, being a luxury, from a closet in the sitting-room, and put some on Maria's handkerchief. "You won't think anything about it after a little," said she, echoing her husband.
"I suppose the scholars in Lowe Academy were a different class," said Aunt Maria, who had seated herself as primly as ever, with her hands crossed but not touching the lap of her black gown. The folds of the skirt were carefully arranged, and she did not move after having once seated herself, for fear of creasing it.
"They were clean, at least," said Maria, with a little grimace of disgust. "It does seem as if people might be clean, if they are poor."
"Some folks here are too poor to buy soap and wash-cloths and towels," her uncle said, still not bitterly. "You must take that into account, Maria. It takes a little extra money even to keep clean; people don't get that into their heads, generally speaking, but it is so."
"Well, I haven't had much money," said Aunt Maria, "but I must say I have kept myself in soap and wash-rags and towels."
"You might not have been able to if you had had half a dozen children and a drinking husband, or one who was out of work half the time," her brother said.
An elderly blush spread over his sister's face. "Well, the Lord knows I'd rather have the soap and towels and wash-rags than a drunken husband and half a dozen dirty children," she retorted, sharply.
"Lucky for you and the children that you have," said Henry. Then he turned again to his niece, of whom he was very fond. "It won't rain every day, dear," he said, "and the smells won't be so bad. Don't worry."
Maria smiled back at him bravely. "I shall get used to it," she said, sniffing at the cologne, which was cheap and pretty bad.
Maria was in reality dismayed. Her experience with children—that is, her personal experience—had been confined to her sister Evelyn. She compared dainty little Evelyn with the rough, uncouth, half-degenerates which she had encountered that morning, sitting before her with gaping mouths of stupidity or grins of impish impudence, in their soiled, damp clothing, and her heart sank. There was nothing in common except youth between these children, the offspring of ignorance and often drunken sensuality, and Evelyn. At first it seemed to her that there was absolutely no redeeming quality in the whole. However, the next morning the sun shone through the yellow maple boughs, and was reflected from the golden carpet of leaves which the wind and rain of the day before had spread beneath. The children were dry; some of them had become ingratiating, even affectionate. She discovered that there were a number of pretty little girls and innocent, honest little boys, whose mothers had made pathetic attempts to send them clean and whole to school. She also discovered that some of them had reasonably quick intelligence, especially one girl, by name Jessy Ramsey. She was of a distant branch of the old Ramseys, and had a high, spiritual forehead, from which the light hair was smoothly combed in damp ridges, and a delicate face with serious, intent blue eyes, under brows strangely pent for a child. Maria straightway took a fancy to Jessy Ramsey. When, on her way home at night, the child timidly followed in her wake, she reached out and grasped her tiny hand with a warm pressure.
"You learned your lessons very well, Jessy," she said, and the child's face, as she looked up at her, grew positively brilliant.
When Maria got home she enthused about her.
"There is one child in the school who is a wonder," said she.
"Who?" asked Aunt Maria. She was in her heart an aristocrat. She considered the people of Amity—that is, the manufacturing people (she exempted her own brother as she might have exempted a prince of the blood drawn into an ignoble pursuit from dire necessity)—as distinctly below par. Maria's school was across the river. She regarded all the children below par. "I do wish you could have had a school this side of the river," she added, "but Miss Norcross has held the other ten years, and I don't believe she will ever get married, she is so mortal homely, and they like her. Who is the child you are talking about?"
"Her name is Ramsey, Jessy Ramsey."
Aunt Maria sniffed. "Oh!" said she. "She belongs to that Eugene Ramsey tribe."
"Any relation to the Ramseys next door?" asked Maria.
"About a tenth cousin, I guess," replied Aunt Maria. "There was a Eugene Ramsey did something awful years ago, before I was born, and he got into state-prison, and then when he came out he married as low as he could. They have never had anything to do with these Ramseys. They are just as low as they can be—always have been."
"This little girl is pretty, and bright," said Maria.
Aunt Maria sniffed again. "Well, you'll see how she'll turn out," she said. "Never yet anything good came of that Eugene Ramsey tribe. That child's father drinks like a fish, and he's been in prison, and her mother's no better than she should be, and she's got a sister that everybody talks about—has ever since she was so high."
"This seems like a good little girl," said Maria.
"Wait and see," said Aunt Maria.
But for all that Maria felt herself drawn towards this poor little offspring of the degenerate branch of the Ramseys. There was something about the child's delicate, intellectual, fairly noble cast of countenance which at once aroused her affection and pity. It was in December, on a bitterly cold day, when Maria had been teaching in Amity some two months, when this affection and pity ripened into absolute fondness and protection. The children were out in the bare school-yard during the afternoon recess, when Maria, sitting huddled over the stove for warmth, heard such a clamor that she ran to the window. Out in the desolate yard, a parallelogram of frozen soil hedged in with a high board fence covered with grotesque, and even obscene, drawings of pupils who had from time to time reigned in district number six, was the little Ramsey girl, surrounded by a crowd of girls who were fairly yelping like little mongrel dogs. The boys' yard was on the other side of the fence, but in the fence was a knot-hole wherein was visible a keen boy-eye. One girl after another was engaged in pulling to the height of her knees Jessy Ramsey's poor, little, dirty frock, thereby disclosing her thin, naked legs, absolutely uncovered to the freezing blast. Maria rushed bareheaded out in the yard and thrust herself through the crowd of little girls.
"Girls, what are you doing?" she asked, sternly.
"Please, teacher, Jessy Ramsey, she 'ain't got nothin' at all on under her dress," piped one after another, in accusing tones; then they yelped again.
Tears of pity and rage sprang to Maria's eyes. She caught hold of the thin little shoulder, which was, beyond doubt, covered by nothing except her frock, and turned furiously upon the other girls.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!" said she; "great girls like you making fun of this poor child!"
"She had ought to be ashamed of herself goin' round so," retorted the biggest girl in school, Alice Sweet, looking boldly at Maria. "She ain't no better than her ma. My ma says so."
"My ma says I mustn't go with her," said another girl.
"Both of you go straight into the school-house," said Maria, at a white heat of anger as she impelled poor little Jessy Ramsey out of the yard.
"I don't care," said Alice Sweet, with quite audible impudence.
The black eye at the knot-hole in the fence which separated the girls' yard from the boys' was replaced by a blue one. Maria's attention was attracted towards it by an audible titter from the other side.
"Every one of you boys march straight into the school-house," she called. Then she led Jessy into a little room which was dedicated to the teacher's outside wraps. The room was little more than a closet, and very cold. Maria put her arm around Jessy and felt with horror the little, naked body under the poor frock.
"For Heaven's sake, child, why are you out with so little on such a day as this?" she cried out.
Jessy began to cry. She had heretofore maintained a sullen silence of depression under taunts, but a kind word was too much for her.
"I 'ain't got no underclothes, teacher; I 'ain't, honest," she sobbed. "I'd outgrowed all my last year's ones, and Mamie she's got 'em; and my mother she 'ain't got no money to buy any more, and my father he's away on a drunk. I can't help it; I can't, honest, teacher."
Maria gazed at the little thing in a sort of horror. "Do you mean to say that you have actually nothing to put on but your dress, Jessy Ramsey?" said she.
"I can't help it, honest, teacher," sobbed Jessy Ramsey.
Maria continued to gaze at her, then she led her into the school-room and rang the bell furiously. When the scholars were all in their places, she opened her lips to express her mind to them, but a second's reflection seemed to show her the futility of it. Instead, she called the geography class.
After school that night, Maria, instead of going home, went straight to Jessy Ramsey's home, which was about half a mile from the school-house. She held Jessy, who wore a threadbare little cape over her frock, by the hand. Franky Ramsey and Mamie Ramsey, Jessy's younger brother and sister, tagged timidly behind her. Finally, Maria waited for them to come up with her, which they did with a cringing air.
"I want to know," said Maria to Mamie, "if you are wearing all your sister's underclothes this winter?"
Mamie whimpered a little as she replied. Mamie had a habitual whimper and a mean little face, with a wisp of flaxen hair tied with a dirty blue ribbon.
"Yes, ma'am," she replied. "Jessy she growed so she couldn't git into 'em, and mummer—"
The boy, who was very thin, almost to emaciation, and looked consumptive, but who was impishly pert, cut in.
"I had to wear Jessy's shirts," he said. "Mamie she couldn't wear them 'ere."
"So you haven't any flannel shirts?" Maria asked of Mamie.
"I'm wearin' mummer's," said Mamie. "Mummer's they shrunk so she couldn't wear 'em, and Jessy couldn't nuther."
"What is your mother wearing?" asked Maria.
"Mr. John Dorsey he bought her some new ones," replied Mamie, and a light of evil intelligence came into the mean little face.
"Who is Mr. John Dorsey?" asked Maria.
"Oh, he's to our house considerable," replied Mamie, still with that evil light, which grew almost confidential, upon her face.
The boy chuckled a little and dug his toes into the frozen earth, then he whistled.
The Ramsey house was the original old homestead of the family. It was unspeakably decrepit and fallen from a former high estate. The old house presented to Maria's fancy something in itself degraded and loathsome. It seemed to partake actually of the character of its inmates—to be stained and swollen and out of plumb with unmentionable sins of degeneration. It was a very poisonous fungus of a house, with blotches of paint here and there, with its front portico supported drunkenly on swaying pillars, with its roof hollowed about the chimney, with great stains here and there upon the walls, which seemed like stains of sin rather than of old rains. Maria marched straight to the house, leading Jessy, with Mamie and Franky at her heels. She knocked on the door; there was no bell, of course. But Franky pushed past her and opened the door, and sang out, in his raucous voice:
"Hullo, mummer! Mummer!"
Mamie echoed him in her equally raucous voice, full of dissonances. "Mummer! Mummer!"
A woman, large and dirty, but rather showily clad, with a brave display of cheap jewelry, appeared in the doorway of a room on the right, from which also issued a warm, spirituous odor, mingled with onions and boiling meat. The woman, who had at one time been weakly pretty, and even now was not bad-looking, stared with a sort of vacant defiance at Maria.
"It's teacher, mummer," volunteered Mamie.
Franky chuckled again, and again whistled. Franky's chuckles and whistles were characteristic of him. He often disturbed the school in such fashion.
Maria had a vision of a man in his shirt-sleeves, smoking beside a red-hot stove, on which boiled the meat and onions. She began at once upon her errand.
"How do you do, Mrs. Ramsey?" said she.
The woman mumbled something inarticulate and backed a little. The man in the room leaned forward and rolled bloodshot eyes at her. Maria began at once. She had much of her mother's spirit, which, when it was aroused, balked at nothing. She pointed at Jessy, then she extended her small index-finger severely at Mrs. Ramsey.
"Mrs. Ramsey," said she, and she stood so straight that she looked much taller, her blue eyes flashed like steel at the slinking ones of the older woman, "I want to inquire why you sent this child to school such a day as this in such a condition?"
Mrs. Ramsey again murmured something inarticulate and backed still farther. Maria followed her quite into the room. A look of insolent admiration became evident in the bloodshot eyes of the man beside the stove. Maria had no false modesty when she was righteously incensed. She would have said just the same before a room full of men.
"That child," she said, and she again pointed at Jessy, shivering in her little, scanty frock—"that child came to school to-day without any clothing under her dress; one of the coldest days of the year, too. I don't see what you are thinking of, you, her own mother, to let a child go out in such a condition! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
Then the woman crimsoned with wrath and she found speech, the patois of New England, instead of New Jersey, to which Maria was accustomed, and which she understood. This woman, instead of half speaking, ran all her words together in a coarse, nasal monotone.
"Hadn't nothin' to put on her," she said. "She'd outgrowed all she had, hadn't nothin', mind your own business, go 'long home, where you b'long."
Maria understood the last words, and she replied, fiercely, "I am not going home one step until you promise me you'll get decent underwear for this child to wear to school," said she, "and that you won't allow her to go out-of-doors in this condition again. If you do, I'll have you arrested."
The woman's face grew redder. She made a threatening movement towards Maria, but the man beside the stove unexpectedly arose and slouched between them, grinning and feeling in his pocket, whence he withdrew two one-dollar notes.
"Here," he said, in a growling voice, which was nevertheless intended to be ingratiating. "Go 'n' buy the young one somethin' to go to school in. Don't yer mind."
Maria half extended her hand, then she drew it back. She looked at the man, who exhaled whiskey as a fungus an evil perfume. She glanced at Mrs. Ramsey.
"Is this man your father?" she asked of Jessy.
Immediately the boy burst into a peal of meaning laughter. The man himself chuckled, then looked grave, with an effort, as he stood extending the money.
"Better take 'em an' buy the young one some clothes," he said.
"Who is this man?" demanded Maria, severely, of the laughing boy.
"It's Mr. John Dorsey," replied Franky.
Then a light of the underneath evil fire of the world broke upon Maria's senses. She repelled the man haughtily.
"I don't want your money," said she. "But"—she turned to the woman—"if you send that child to school again, clothed as she is to-day, I will have you arrested. I mean it." With that she was gone, with a proud motion. Laughter rang out after her, also a scolding voice and an oath. She did not turn her head. She marched straight on out of the yard, to the street, and home.
She could not eat her supper. She had a sick, shocked feeling.
"What is the matter?" her aunt Maria asked. "It's so cold you can't have been bothered with the smells to-day."
"It's worse than smells," replied Maria. Then she told her story.
Her aunt stared at her. "Good gracious! You didn't go to that awful house, a young girl like you?" she said, and her prim cheeks burned. "Why, that man's livin' right there with Mrs. Ramsey, and her husband winking at it! They are awful people!"
"I would have gone anywhere to get that poor child clothed decently," said Maria.
"But you wouldn't take his money!"
"I rather guess I wouldn't!"
"Well, I don't blame you, but I don't see what is going to be done."
"I don't," said Maria, helplessly. She reflected how she had disposed already of her small stipend, and would not have any more for some time, and how her own clothing no more than sufficed for her.
"I can't give her a thing," said Aunt Maria. "I'm wearin' flannels myself that are so patched there isn't much left of the first of 'em, and it's just so with the rest of my clothes. I'm wearin' a petticoat made out of a comfortable my mother made before Henry was married. It was quilted fine, and had a small pattern, if it is copperplate, but I don't darse hold my dress up only just so. I wouldn't have anybody know it for the world. And I know Eunice ain't much better off. They had that big doctor's bill, and I know she's patched and darned so she'd be ashamed of her life if she fell down on the ice and broke a bone. I tell you what it is, those other Ramseys ought to do something. I don't care if they are such distant relations, they ought to do something."
After supper Maria and her aunt went into the other side of the house, and Aunt Maria, who had been waxing fairly explosive, told the tale of poor little Jessy Ramsey going to school with no undergarments.
"It's a shame!" said Eunice, who was herself nervous and easily aroused to indignation. She sat up straight and the hollows on her thin cheeks blazed, and her thin New England mouth tightened.
"George Ramsey ought to do something if he is earning as much as they say he is," said Aunt Maria.
"That is so," said Eunice. "It doesn't make any difference if they are so distantly related. It is the same name and the same blood."
Henry Stillman laughed his sardonic laugh. "You can't expect the flowers to look out for the weeds," he said. "George Ramsey and his mother are in full blossom; they have fixed up their house and are holding up their heads. You can't expect them to look out for poor relations who have gone to the bad, and done worse—got too poor to buy clothes enough to keep warm."
Maria suddenly sprang to her feet. "I know what I am going to do," she announced, with decision, and made for the door.
"What on earth are you going to do?" asked her aunt Maria.
"I am going straight in there, and I am going to tell them how that poor little thing came to school to-day, and tell them they ought to be ashamed of themselves."
Before the others fairly realized what she was doing, Maria was out of the house, running across the little stretch which intervened. Her aunt Maria called after her, but she paid no attention. She was at that moment ringing the Ramsey bell, with her pretty, uncovered hair tossing in the December wind.
"She will catch her own death of cold," said Aunt Maria, "running out without anything on her head."
"She will just get patronized for her pains," said Eunice, who had a secret grudge against the Ramseys for their prosperity and their renovated house, a grudge which she had not ever owned to her inmost self, but which nevertheless existed.
"She doesn't stop to think one minute; she's just like her father about that," said Aunt Maria.
Henry Stillman said nothing. He took up his paper, which he had been reading when Maria and his sister entered.
Meantime, Maria was being ushered into the Ramsey house by a maid who wore a white cap. The first thing which she noticed as she entered the house was a strong fragrance of flowers. That redoubled her indignation.
"These Ramseys can buy flowers in midwinter," she thought, "while their own flesh and blood go almost naked."
She entered the room in which the flowers were, a great bunch of pink carnations in a tall, green vase. The room was charming. It was not only luxurious, but gave evidences of superior qualities in its owners. It was empty when Maria entered, but soon Mrs. Ramsey and her son came in. Maria recognized with a start her old acquaintance, or rather she did not recognize him. She would not have known him at all had she not seen him in his home. She had not seen him before, for he had been away ever since she had come to Amity. He had been West on business for his bank. Now he at once stepped forward and spoke to her.
"You are my old friend, Miss Edgham, I think," he said. "Allow me to present my mother."
Maria bowed perforce before the very gentle little lady in a soft lavender cashmere, with her neck swathed in laces, but she did not accept the offered seat, and she utterly disregarded the glance of astonishment which both mother and son gave at her uncovered shoulders and head. Maria's impetuosity had come to her from two sides. When it was in flood, so to speak, nothing could stop it.
"No, thank you, I can't sit down," she said. "I came on an errand. You are related, I believe, to the other Ramseys. The children go to my school. There are Mamie and Franky and Jessy."
"We are very distantly related, and, on the whole, proud of the distance rather than the relationship," said George Ramsey, with a laugh.
Then Maria turned fiercely upon him. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself," said she.
The young man stared at her.
Maria persisted. "Yes, you ought," she said. "I don't care how distant the relationship is, the same blood is in your veins, and you bear the same name."
"Why, what is the matter?" asked George Ramsey, still in a puzzled, amused voice.
Maria spoke out. "That poor little Jessy Ramsey," said she, "and she is the prettiest and brightest scholar I have, too, came to school to-day without a single stitch of clothing under her dress. It is a wonder she didn't die. I don't know but she will die, and if she does it will be your fault."
George Ramsey's face suddenly sobered; his mother's flushed. She looked at him, then at Maria, almost with fright. She felt really afraid of this forcible girl, who was so very angry and so very pretty in her anger. Maria had never looked prettier than she did then, with her cheeks burning and her blue eyes flashing with indignation and defiance.
"That is terrible, such a day as this," said George Ramsey.
"Yes; I had no idea they were quite so badly off," murmured his mother.
"You ought to have had some idea," flashed out Maria.
"We had not, Miss Edgham," said George, gently. "You must remember how very distant the relationship is. I believe it begins with the fourth generation from myself. And there are other reasons—"
"There ought not to be other reasons," Maria said.
Mrs. Ramsey looked with wonder and something like terror and aversion at this pretty, violent girl, who was espousing so vehemently, not to say rudely, the cause of the distant relatives of her husband's family. The son, however, continued to smile amusedly at Maria.
"Won't you sit down, Miss Edgham?" he said.
"Yes, won't you sit down?" his mother repeated, feebly.
"No, thank you," said Maria. "I only came about this. I—I would do something for the poor little thing myself, but I haven't any money now, and Aunt Maria would, and Uncle Henry, and Aunt Eunice, but they—"
All at once Maria, who was hardly more than a child herself, and who had been in reality frightfully wrought up over the piteous plight of the other child, lost control of herself. She began to cry. She put her handkerchief to her face and sobbed helplessly.
"The poor little thing! oh, the poor little thing!" she panted, "with nobody in the world to do anything for her, and her own people so terribly wicked. I—can't bear it!"
The first thing she knew, Maria was having a large, soft cloak folded around her, and somebody was leading her gently to the door. She heard a murmured good-night, to which she did not respond except by a sob, and was led, with her arm rather closely held, along the sidewalk to her own door. At the door George Ramsey took her hand, and she felt something pressed softly into it.
"If you will please buy what the poor little thing needs to make her comfortable," he whispered.
"Thank you," Maria replied, faintly. She began to be ashamed of her emotion.
"You must not think that my mother and I were knowing to this," George Ramsey said. "We are really such very distant relations that the name alone is the only bond between us; still, on general principles, if the name had been different, I would do what I could. Such suffering is terrible. You must not think us hard-hearted, Miss Edgham."
Maria looked up at the young fellow's face, upon which an electric light shone fully, and it was a good face to see. She could not at all reconcile it with her memory of the rather silly little boy with the patched trousers, with whom she had discoursed over the garden fence. This face was entirely masterly, dark and clean-cut, with fine eyes, and a distinctly sweet expression about the mouth which he had inherited from his mother.
"I suppose I was very foolish," Maria said, in a low voice. "I am afraid I was rude to your mother. I did not mean to be, but the poor little thing, and this bitter day, and I went home with her, and there was a dreadful man there who offered me money to buy things for her—"
"I hope you did not take it," George Ramsey said, quickly.
"I am glad of that. They are a bad lot. I don't know about this little girl. She may be a survival of the fittest, but take them all together they are a bad lot, if they are my relatives. Good-night, Miss Edgham, and I beg you not to distress yourself about it all."
"I am very sorry if I was rude," Maria said, and she spoke like a little girl.
"You were not rude at all," George responded, quickly. "You were only all worked up over such suffering, and it did you credit. You were not rude at all." He shook hands again with Maria. Then he asked if he might call and see her sometime. Maria said yes, and fled into the house.
She went into her aunt Maria's side of the house, and ran straight up-stairs to her own room. Presently she heard doors opening and shutting and knew that her aunt was curiously following her from the other side. She came to Maria's door, which was locked. Aunt Maria was not surprised at that, as Maria always locked her door at night—she herself did the same.
"Have you gone to bed?" called Aunt Maria.
"Yes," replied Maria, who had, indeed, hurriedly hustled herself into bed.
"Gone to bed early as this?" said Aunt Maria.
"I am dreadfully tired," replied Maria.
"Did they give you anything? Why didn't you come into the other side and tell us about it?"
"Mr. George Ramsey gave me ten dollars."
"Gracious!" said Aunt Maria.
Presently she spoke again. "What did they say?" she asked.
"Not much of anything."
"Gave you ten dollars?" said Aunt Maria. "Well, you can get enough to make her real comfortable with that. Didn't you get chilled through going over there without anything on?"
"No," replied Maria, and as she spoke she realized, in the moonlit room, a mass of fur-lined cloak over a chair. She had forgotten to return it to George Ramsey. "I had Mrs. Ramsey's cloak coming home," she called.
"Well, I'm glad you did. It's awful early to go to bed. Don't you want something?"
"No, thank you."
"Don't you want me to heat a soapstone and fetch it up to you?"
"No, thank you."
"Well, good-night," said Aunt Maria, in a puzzled voice.
"Good-night," said Maria. Then she heard her aunt go away.
It was a long time before Maria went to sleep. She awoke about two o'clock in the morning and was conscious of having been awakened by a strange odor, a combined odor of camphor and lavender, which came from Mrs. Ramsey's cloak. It disturbed her, although she could not tell why. Then all at once she saw, as plainly as if he were really in the room, George Ramsey's face. At first a shiver of delight came over her; then she shuddered. A horror, as of one under conviction of sin, came over her. It was as if she repelled an evil angel from her door, for she remembered all at once what had happened to her, and that it was a sin for her even to dream of George Ramsey; and she had allowed him to come into her waking dreams. She got out of bed, took up the soft cloak, thrust it into her closet, and shut the door. Then she climbed shivering back into bed, and lay there in the moonlight, entangled in the mystery of life.
The very next day, which was Saturday, and consequently a holiday, Maria went on the trolley to Westbridge, which was a provincial city about six miles from Amity. She proposed buying some clothing for Jessy Ramsey with the ten dollars which George Ramsey had given her. Her aunt Eunice accompanied her.
"George Ramsey goes over to Westbridge on the trolley," said Eunice, as they jolted along—the cars were very well equipped, but the road was rough—"and I shouldn't wonder if he was on our car coming back."
Maria colored quickly and looked out of the window. The cars were constructed like those on steam railroads, with seats facing towards the front, and Maria's aunt had insisted upon her sitting next to the window because the view was in a measure new to her. She had not been over the road many times since she had come to Amity. She stared out at the trimly kept country road, lined with cheap Queen Anne houses and the older type of New England cottages and square frame houses, and it all looked strange to her after the red soil and the lapse towards Southern ease and shiftlessness of New Jersey. But nothing that she looked upon was as strange as the change in her own heart. Maria, from being of an emotional nature, had many times considered herself as being in love, young as she was, but this was different. When her aunt Eunice spoke of George Ramsey she felt a rigid shiver from head to foot. It seemed to her that she could not see him nor speak to him, that she could not return to Amity on the same car. She made no reply at first to her aunt's remark, but finally she said, in a faint voice, that she supposed Mr. Ramsey came home after bank hours at three o'clock.
"He comes home a good deal later than that, as a general thing," said Eunice. "Oftener than not I see him get off the car at six o'clock. I guess he stays and works after bank hours. George Ramsey is a worker, if there ever was one. He's a real likely young man."
Maria felt Eunice's eyes upon her, and realized that she was thinking, as her aunt Maria had done, that George Ramsey would be a good match for her. A sort of desperation seized upon her.
"I don't know what you mean by likely," Maria said, impertinently, in her shame and defiance.
"Don't know what I mean by likely?"
"No, I don't. People in New Jersey don't say likely."
"Why, I mean he is a good young man, and likely to turn out well," responded Eunice, rather helplessly. She was a very gentle woman, and had all her life been more or less intimidated by her husband's and sister-in-laws' more strenuous natures; and, if the truth were told, she stood in a little awe of this blooming young niece, with her self-possession and clothes of the New York fashion.
"I don't see why he is more likely, as you call it, than any other young man," Maria returned, pitilessly. "I should call him a very ordinary young man."
"He isn't called so generally," Eunice said, feebly.
They were about half an hour reaching Westbridge. Eunice by that time had plucked up a little spirit. She reflected that Maria knew almost nothing about the shopping district, and she herself had shopped there all her life since she had been of shopping age. Eunice had a great respect for the Westbridge stores, and considered them distinctly superior to those of Boston. She was horrified when Maria observed, shortly before they got off the car, that she supposed they could have done much better in Boston.
"I guess you will find that Adams & Wood's is as good a store as any you could go to in New York," said Eunice. "Then there is the Boston Store, too, and Collins & Green's. All of them are very good, and they have a good assortment. Hardly anybody in Amity goes anywhere else shopping, they think the Westbridge stores so much better."
"Of course it is cheaper to come here," said Maria, as they got off the car in front of Adams & Wood's.
"That isn't the reason," said Eunice, eagerly. "Why, Mrs. Judge Saunders buys 'most everything here; says she can do enough sight better than she can anywhere else."
"If the dress Mrs. Saunders had on at the church supper was a sample, she dresses like a perfect guy," said Maria, as they entered the store, with its two pretentious show-windows filled with waxen ladies dressed in the height of the fashion, standing in the midst of symmetrically arranged handkerchiefs and rugs.
Maria knew that she was even cruelly pert to her aunt, but she felt like stinging—like crowding some of the stings out of her own heart. She asked herself was ever any girl so horribly placed as she was, married, and not married; and now she had seen some one else whom she must shun and try to hate, although she wished to love him. Maria felt instinctively, remembering the old scenes over the garden fence, and remembering how she herself had looked that very day as she started out, with her puffy blue velvet turban rising above the soft roll of her fair hair and her face blooming through a film of brown lace, and also remembering George Ramsey's tone as he asked if he might call, that if she were free that things might happen with her as with other girls; that she and George Ramsey might love each other, and become engaged; that she might save her school money for a trousseau, and by-and-by be married to a man of whom she should be very proud. The patches on George Ramsey's trousers became very dim to her. She admired him from the depths of her heart.