"Good evening, Miss Dennis," he said, and he was bowing in a manner that Dirk Colson was confident he could imitate. Then he turned to the boys, shaking hands:—
"How are you, Haskell? By the way, Crowley, I called on you to-day at the office; sorry not to find you in."
"Mrs. Roberts, allow me?" And he wheeled one of the easy chairs to the spot where that lady was standing.
"How well he enters into the thing," said Gracie Dennis to herself, looking on in admiration at this young man, who, still so young, was adapting himself to circumstances that might well have embarrassed older heads than his. He plunged into talk with the boys, making them answer questions. He had come but a few moments before from Mark Calkins', stopped there with a message from Dr. Everett; and these boys knew Mark and Sallie and the worthless father, and all the more or less worthless neighbors who ran in and out, and young Ried had a dozen questions to ask. His quick-wittedness, and the ease with which he made talk to these young men who lived in such an utterly different world from himself, surprised his hostess very much.
Even she did not know to what an exalted pitch his enthusiasm and excitement reached; though he had flashed a pair of most appreciative eyes on her when she gave him her invitation for the evening. Here was actually his sister Ester's darling scheme being worked out before his eyes! Not only that, but he was being called upon to help. Ester had wanted him to grow up to undertake just such efforts as these; and only last week they had seemed to him so altogether good and noble and so impossible to try. Yet here he was helping try them! No wonder Alfred Ried could talk.
It had been determined in family council that Mr. Roberts must absent himself. He was in the house, indeed—no further away than the library, ready for call in event of an emergency; but it was judged that another stranger, and such a formidable one as the head of the house, must be avoided for this one evening. As for Mr. Ried, would they remember that he was not much older than some of them, and that he was not a rich young man living on his income, but was earning his living by daily work? and would they note the contrast between themselves and him? This was what their hostess wondered. A few moments and then came a summons to the dining-room. Seated at last, though one of the poor fellows stumbled over a chair, and barely saved himself from falling.
If you could have seen that dining-table, the picture of it would have lingered long in your memory. The whitest and finest of damask table linen; napkins so large that they almost justified Dick Bolton's whisper, "What be you goin' to do with your sheet?" china so delicate that Gracie Dennis could not restrain an inward shiver when any of the clumsy fingers touched a bit of it, and such a glitter of silver as even Gracie had never seen before.
One thing was different from the conventional tea-party. Every servant was banished; none but tender eyes, interested in her experiment, and ready to help it on, should witness the blunders of the boys. So the hostess had decreed, and so instructed Alfred and Gracie. The consequence was that Alfred himself served the steaming oysters with liberal hand, and Gracie presided over jellies and sauces, while Mrs. Roberts sugared and creamed and poured cups of such coffee as those fellows had never even smelled before. If you think they were embarrassed to the degree that they could not eat, you are mistaken.
They were street boys; their lives had been spent in a hardening atmosphere. Directly the first sense of novelty passed away, and their poorly-fed stomachs craved the unusual fare served up for them, the fellows grinned at one another, seized their silver spoons, and dived into the stews in a fashion that would have horrified every servant in the house.
How they ate! Oysters and coffee and pickles and cakes and jellies! There seemed no limit to their capacities; neither did they make the slightest attempt to correct their table manners. None of them paid any outward attention to their "sheets," although Alfred and Gracie spread theirs with elaborate care; they leaned their elbows on the table, they made loud, swooping sounds with their lips, and, in short, transgressed every law known to civilized life. Why not?
What did they know about civilized life?
Nevertheless, not one movement of young Ried escaped the notice of some of them.
He tried still to carry on a conversation; though the business of eating was being too closely attended to on all sides to let him be very successful.
Gracie studied him, and was not only interested in his efforts, but roused to make some attempts herself. What could she talk about with such people? School? The Literary Club? The last concert? The course of lectures? The last new book that everybody was reading? No, not everybody; assuredly not these seven.
On what ground was she to meet them?
Yet talk she must and would. Mr. Ried should see that she at least wanted to help.
"LET US BE FASHIONABLE."
One feature of the hour was not only entirely new to the boys, but gave them a curious feeling, the name of which they did not understand. When the last one sat back in his chair, thereby admitting himself vanquished, Mrs. Roberts, looking at the young man who sat at the foot of the table, said:—
"Will you return thanks?"
What did that mean? To be sure they had heard of thanking people, but even they were aware that it was an unusual thing for persons to demand thanks for themselves. They watched; behold, the young man bowed his head, and these were the words he spoke:—
"Dear Saviour, we thank thee for the joys of this evening. We pray thee to teach us so to live that we may all meet some day in our Father's house. Amen."
The boys looked at one another, then looked down at their plates. Their sole experience of prayer was connected with the South End Mission. To meet it at a supper-table was a revelation. Did the people who lived in grand houses, and had such wonderful things to eat, always pray at their supper-tables? This was the problem which they were turning over in their minds.
Returning to the parlor, Gracie went at once to the piano. She had spent a good deal of Monday, settling the question of what to play, and had chosen the most sparkling music she could find. I am anxious to have it recorded, that, all uncultured as they were, these boys neither talked nor laughed during the music, but appeared at least to listen. It was Dirk Colton who sat nearest to the piano, and who listened in that indescribable way which always flatters a musician.
"Do you like it?" Gracie asked, running off the final notes in a tinkle of melody.
His dark face flushed a deep red.
"I dunno," he said, with an awkward laugh; "it's queer sounding. I don't see how you make so many tinkles. Do you make all your fingers go at once on those black and white things?"
"Not quite; but sometimes they have to dance about in a very lively fashion. I have to keep my wits at work, I assure you."
"Is it hard to do?"
"Not very, nowadays. When I first commenced, the practising was horrid; I hated it."
"What made you do it, then?"
"Oh, the same reason which makes people do a great many things that they don't like," she said, lightly; "I wanted the results. I knew if I worked at it steadily the time would come when I should not only enjoy it myself, but be able to give pleasure to other people. Why? Don't you ever do things that you don't particularly like?"
He shrugged his shoulders, and bestowed on her a very wise look.
"Often enough," he said fiercely, and he thought of his drunken father. "But then I wouldn't if I could help it."
"That would depend on whether you thought the thing would pay in the end, would it not?"
Then, without waiting for an answer, she asked "What is your business?"
"My business?" with a curiously puzzled air.
"Yes; how do you spend your time?"
"Hunting up something to eat," he said, with a grim smile; visions of his aimless loafing appearing before him as the only occupation he could be said to have. It had not occurred to him to try to mislead her, but she evidently did not understand.
"Oh, yes," she said, seriously, "so I suppose. Isn't it queer how busy men and women have to be day after day, and year after year, just getting themselves and others something to eat? Do you have other people to help get it for? Mother, for instance, and little brothers and sisters?"
"I've got a mother," he said, "and a sister."
"And that makes work easier, does it not? I always thought it would be stupid to work all the time just for one's self. But I meant, What do you work at in order to get the something to eat,—there are so many different ways?"
"How do you know I work at all?"
Dirk's voice was growing sullen; a consciousness that he would appear at a disadvantage in admitting himself an idler in a busy world was dawning upon him as an entirely new idea. At his question, Gracie turned on her music-stool and regarded him with surprise.
"Why, of course you work," she said; "people all do."
She was not acting a part. Her experience among poor people was limited to that outwardly respectable class who, however disreputable their conduct might be on Sabbath, had, nevertheless a Monday occupation with which they pretended to earn a living.
Dirk shrugged his shoulders again.
"Do they?" he said.
Her evident ignorance of the world made him good-natured. She was not trying to preach to him, he decided. A thing which Dirk hated, in common with all persons of his class.
But the lull in the music had started conversation in other parts of the room.
Dirk heard young Ried's question:—
"Mrs. Roberts, do you know of any young man looking for work? I heard of a good situation this afternoon. Oh, there are plenty of applicants, but the gentleman is an old friend of my brother-in-law, and I could speak a helpful word for somebody."
"I have no one in mind," Mrs. Roberts said, and she glanced eagerly at the boys lounging in various attitudes in her easy chairs. Only three of them she knew made any pretence of earning their living. Did Alfred mean one of them? "Here is a chance for you, young gentlemen," she said, lightly, "who bids for a situation?"
"What is the place?"
It was Dirk Colson who asked the question. Ever since he could remember he was supposed to have been hunting for work, but I am not sure that he ever felt quite such a desire to find it as at that moment.
"It is at Gray's, on Ninth Street, a good chance; but the one who secures it must have a fair knowledge of figures."
"Oh, land!" said Dirk, sinking lower in his easy-chair. "No use in me asking about it."
"Are figures your weak point?" Mrs. Roberts asked, smiling on him. "I can sympathize with you; I had to work harder over arithmetic than at any other study; but I learned to like it. Do you know I think it should be a favorite study with you? It is so nice to conquer an obstinate-looking row of figures, and fairly oblige the right result to appear. What did you find hardest about the study, Mr. Colson?"
The others chuckled, but Dirk glowered at them fiercely.
"There's nothin' to laugh about as I see," he said. "I didn't find nothin' hard, because I never had no chance to try. I never went to no school, nor had books, nor nothin'; now that's the truth, and I'm blamed if I ain't going to own it."
"What a good thing it is that you are young." This was her animated answer. "There is a chance to make up for lost time. Mr. Ried, I have such a nice idea. I heard you and Dr. Everett speaking of the Literary Club the other night. Why cannot we have a literary club of our own? A reading circle, or something of that sort? Suppose we should meet once a week and read aloud something interesting, and have talks about it afterwards. Do you ever read aloud?"
If Mrs. Roberts in all sincerity had not been one of the most simple-hearted, and in some respects ignorant little creatures on the face of the globe, she could never, with serious face, have addressed such a question to Nimble Dick.
Young Ried could not have done it, for he realized the folly of supposing that Nimble Dick ever read anything. By just so much was Mrs. Roberts ahead of him. She supposed that these boys had their literature, and read it, and perhaps met somewhere on occasion and read together. This made it possible for her to ask surprising questions with honest face.
"Bless me!" said Nimble Dick, startled into an upright posture; "oh, no, mum, never."
And even Dirk Colson laughed at the expression on his face.
"Still I think you would enjoy it, after a little practice, and I can't help fancying you would make a good reader."
The boys were all laughing now, Nimble Dick with the rest.
"You're in for an awful blunder there," he said, good-naturedly. "I'm like Black Dirk, never had no chances, and didn't do nothin' worth speakin' of with them that I had. Why, bless your body, mum! I can't even read to myself! I make the awfulest work you ever heard of spellin' out the show-bills. I have to get Black Dirk to help me; and him and me is a team."
By this time Dirk's face had lost its smile, and his fierce eyes were flashing; but the hostess was serene.
"That doesn't prove anything against my statement. I was speaking of what could be, not necessarily of what was. Let us have a club. The more I think of the plan the more it pleases me. I'll tell you! The word 'club' doesn't quite suit me. Let us be fashionable. Gracie, don't you know how fashionable it is becoming to have 'evenings' set apart for special occasions? Mr. Ried, you know Mrs. Judson's 'Tuesday evenings,' and Mrs. Symond's 'Friday evenings?' Very well, let us have our 'Monday evenings,' in which we will do all sorts of nice things; sometimes literary, sometimes musical, and sometimes—well, anything that we please. What do you say, gentlemen; shall we organize? Mr. Ried, will you give Monday evenings to us? Gracie, you are my guest, and cannot, of course, refuse."
It was a novel idea, certainly. Even Alfred, while trying to heartily second her, was in doubt as to what she could hope to accomplish by it. As for the boys, not one of them promised to attend; but neither did they refuse. Mrs. Roberts presently left the subject, seeming to consider her point carried, and proposed a visit to the conservatory.
I think it very doubtful whether the boy lives who does not like flowers. There are those who seem to consider it a mark of manliness to affect indifference to them; but these, as they grow older—become real men—generally lay this bit of folly aside. Then there are those, plenty of them, who really do not know that they care for flowers. The boys, ushered for the first time in their lives into the full bloom of a conservatory, were, most of them, of this latter stamp.
What a scene of beauty it was! Great white callas, bending their graceful cups; great red and yellow roses, making the air rich with their breath; vines and mosses and ferns and small flowers in almost endless variety. Alfred and Gracie moved among the glories; the latter exhausting all her superlatives in honest delight, although she had visited the spot a dozen times that day; and Alfred, who had been less favored, was hardly less eager and responsive than she. But Mrs. Roberts watched the boys.
It was all very well for those two to enjoy her flowers; of course they would. But what language would the silent, lovely things speak to her untutored boys? They said not a word; not one of them. They made no exclamations; they had no superlatives at command. But Stephen Crowley stooped before a lovely carnation, and smelled, and smelled, drawing in long breaths, as though he meant to take its fragrance all away with him; and Nimble Dick picked up the straying end of an ivy, and restored it to its support again, in a way that was not to be lost sight of by one who was looking for hearts; and Dirk Colson brushed back his matted hair and stood long before a great, pure lily, and looked down into its heart with an expression on his face that his teacher never forgot.
She came over to him presently, standing beside him, saying nothing. Then at last she reached forth her hand and broke the lily from its stalk. He started, almost as if something had struck him.
"What did you do that for?" And his voice was fierce.
"I want you to take this for me to your sister—the girl with beautiful golden hair; I saw her one day, and I shall remember her hair and eyes. She will like this flower, and she will like you to bring it to her.
"Gracie"—raising her voice—"gather some flowers will you, and make into bouquets? These young gentlemen will like to carry them to some one. There must be mothers at home who will enjoy bouquets brought by their sons."
Over this gently-spoken sentence Nimble Dick laughed a hard, derisive laugh. It made the dark blood flow into black Dirk's indignant face. Even Alfred Ried lost self-control for a moment, and flashed a glance at him out of angry eyes. How could there be any hope of a boy who sneered at his mother? Yet you need not judge him too harshly.
He thought of his mother, indeed, when he laughed; but alas! he thought of her as drunk. And he knew her scarcely at all, save as that word described her. How could "mother" mean to him what it meant to Alfred Ried? what it meant even to Dirk Colson, whose mother, weak indeed in body and spirit, full of complaining words, oftentimes weakly bitter words to him, yet patched his clothes so long as she could get patches and thread, and would have washed them if she could have got soap, and been able to bring the water, and if her only tub hadn't been in pawn. Oh, yes, there are degrees in mothers.
Mrs. Roberts, meantime, broke off blossoms with lavish hand, and made bouquets for Nimble Dick and for Dirk. He took the bright-hued ones with a smile, but the lily he held by itself, and still looked at it.
They went away at last noisily; growing almost, if not quite, rough towards one another, at least, and directly they were out of the door, Nimble Dick gave a whoop that would have chilled the blood of nervous women. But matron and maiden looked at each other and laughed.
"We have kept them pent up all the evening, and that is the escape-valve being raised to avoid a general explosion." This was Mrs. Roberts' explanation.
They were quite alone. Alfred, on being invited in low tones to tarry and talk things over, had shaken his head, and replied, significantly:—
"Thank you! no; I am one of them, and must stand on the same level."
"You are right," Mrs. Roberts said, smilingly; "you must have been an apt pupil, my friend. That dear sister taught you a great deal."
He held up the bouquet which she had made for him.
"I am going to put it before Ester's picture," he said; "her work is going on."
"Well," said Gracie, "it is over, and we lived through it. And they did all come! I am amazed over that! And how they did eat! I suppose the next thing is to open all the windows and air out. Flossy Roberts, I'm afraid you are going insane. The idea of your inviting that horde here every Monday. What a parlor you would have! And they would breed a pestilence! They won't come, to be sure; but just imagine it if they should! I really think Mr. Roberts ought to send you home for Dr. Mitchell to look after. Well, Flossy, what next?"
"Next, dear, you must pray. Pray as you never have done before, for the souls of these boys, and for the success of my 'Monday evenings.' Gracie, we are at work for immortal souls. Think of it! they must live forever. Shall they, through all eternity, keep dropping lower and lower, or shall they wear crowns?"
Sallie Calkins sat in a common little rocking-chair and rocked; and while she rocked she sewed, setting neat stitches in a brown coat which was already patched and darned and was threadbare in many places. There was a look of deep content on Sallie's face. There were many reasons for it.
Dr. Everett had that morning pronounced Mark's broken limb to be healing rapidly. He had also reported that Mark's place was to be held open for him by his employers. At this present moment, Mark, arrayed in a clean shirt, was resting on a very white sheet, his head reposing on a real feather pillow dressed in white and frilled. Over him was carefully spread another of those wonderful sheets, and to make the crowning glory, a white quilt, warm and soft, tucked him in on every side. How could Sallie but rejoice? All about the room there had been changes. A neat little table stood at the bed's side. It was covered with a white cloth, and a china bowl set thereon with a silver spoon beside it; a delicate goblet and china pitcher also, both carefully covered with a napkin. Did Mrs. Roberts know how homely Sallie gloried in the thinness of that china and the fineness of that napkin? How does it happen that some of the very poor seem born with such aesthetic tastes? Mrs. Roberts had intuitions, and was given to certain acts, concerning which she could not give to others satisfactory explanations. Therefore, she sometimes left china where others would have judged the plainest stoneware more prudent and sensible.
A bit of bright carpet was spread at the side of the bed. A fire glowed in the neatly-brushed stove. A white muslin curtain hung at the window; and the chair in which Sallie rocked and sewed was new and gayly painted.
There were other traces of Mrs. Roberts. You might not have noticed them, but it seemed to Sallie that her fingers had touched everywhere. Yet the lady herself thought that she had done very little. She had held her inclinations in check with severe judgment.
The door opened softly, and a mass of golden hair, from out of which peered great eyes, peeped cautiously in.
"Alone?" it said, nodding first toward the figure on the bed, and intimating that she was aware of Mark's presence, and did not mean him.
"Yes," said Sallie, "come in; Mark's asleep, but you won't disturb him; he don't disturb easy; he sleeps just like a baby since the doctor stopped that pain in his knee. There's my new chair; just try it and see how nice it is."
Saying which, she got herself out of the little rocker in haste, and pushed it toward her guest, meantime taking a plain wooden chair, also new, and adding:—
"Did you ever hear of anybody like her before?"
"Something's happened!" said Mart Colson, ignoring the reference to the mysterious pronoun,—her voice so full of a new and strange meaning that had Sallie been acquainted with the word she might have said it was filled with awe.
As it was, she only exclaimed, "What?" in an intensely interested tone.
"Why, look here! I brought it along to show you."
Whereupon she produced from under her piece of torn shawl a large broken-nosed pitcher, a piece of brown paper carefully tied over the top. She untied the bit of calico string with fingers that shook from excitement.
"Look in there!" she exclaimed at last, triumph in her tone, reaching forward the pitcher.
Sallie looked, and drew in her breath with a long, expressive "O-h!"
There, reposing in stately beauty, lay the great white lily with its golden bell.
"Yes, I should think so!" Mart said, satisfied with the expression. "Did you ever see anything like that before? It ain't made of wax nor anything else that folks ever made. It's alive! I felt of it. It looks like velvet and satin and all them lovely store things; but it doesn't feel so; it feels alive, and it grew. But, Sallie Calkins, if you should live a hundred years, and guess all the time, you never could guess where I got it. Sallie Calkins, if you'll believe it, Dirk gave it to me!"
"Yes, he did!"
Who would have supposed Mart Colson's voice capable of such a triumphant ring?
"You see the way of it was: Last night he didn't come for his supper at all, and that always scares me dreadful. I'm expecting something to happen, you know. Father, he didn't come either; for the matter of that, he hasn't come yet; and mother, she was awful tired, and hadn't had no dinner to speak of, and she just broke down and took on awful. Mother don't often cry, and it's good she don't, for she just goes into it with all her might when the time comes. It wasn't about father—she's used to him, you know, and don't expect nothing else; but Dirk drives her wild with what may happen to him. I was worried about him, too, but I was mad at him; it seemed too awful mean in him to stay away and scare mother. At last I got her to go to bed, and she was all tuckered out, and went to sleep.
"Then I wrapped myself in the quilt and sat down to wait; but I got asleep, and I dreamed I saw her; she had wings to each side of her, and she flew over the tops of all those houses and made them turn white like the snow looks when it is coming down before it drops into the gutters. Wasn't that queer? Well, some noise woke me up. I was sitting flat on the floor by mother, and I sat up straight all of a tremble. And there was the old stool, and the brown pitcher on it, half-full of water, and this wonderful thing stood in it looking at me. And Dirk, he stood off the other side looking at it.
"'It's for you, and she sent it.' That's what he said to me; and I wasn't real wide awake, you know. I suppose that's what made his voice sound so queer; and what do you think I said? I was thinking of my dream, and says I: 'Did she have her wings on?' Then Dirk made a queer noise; it was a laugh, but it sounded most like a cry. 'I guess so,' says he, and then he turned and went off to bed. And I can't get any more out of him; he is as snarly when I ask any questions as though he was mad about it all. If it hadn't been for this great white thing I might have thought this morning that it all belonged to the dream. But Dirk brought this home from somewhere, and put it in the pitcher, and give it to me his own self; that's sure."
The story closed in triumph.
"It is beautiful!" said Sallie, the brown jacket slipping to the floor, while she bent over the lily. "It is beautiful, all of it, and it looks just like her, and sounds like her, wings and all; of course she sent it."
"And Dirk brought it." That part of the story Mart Colson did not forget.
Sometimes it seems to me a pity that hearts are not laid bare to the gaze of others. What, for instance, might not this little incident have done for Dirk Colson had he known how the starved heart of his sister fed on the thought that he brought her the flower?
Still, on the other hand, I don't know what the effect would have been on Mart had she known what a tremendous amount of courage it had taken to present the flower to her. A dozen times on the way home had Dirk been on the point of consigning it to the gutter. He carry home a flower! If it had been a loaf of bread he thought it would be more consistent. Someway he recognized a fine sarcasm in the thought that he, who had never in his life contributed towards the necessities of the family, should carry to that dreary home a flower! Yet the fair lily did its work well during that long walk from East Fifty-fifth Street to the shadow of the alley. It made Dirk Colson tell it fiercely that he hated himself; that he was a brute and a loafer,—a blot on the earth, and ought not to live. Why didn't he go to work? Why didn't he have things to bring home to Mart every little while, as Mark Calkins did to Sallie? Hadn't he seen Mark, only a few evenings before he was hurt, with a pair of girl's shoes strung over his shoulder, and heard him whistle as he ran, two steps at a time, up the rickety stairs? What would Mart think if he should bring her home a pair of shoes? What would she think of his bringing her a flower? She would sneer, of course: and, in the mood which then possessed him, Dirk said angrily that she had a right to sneer, and would be a fool not to; and yet he hated the thought of it. There was nothing in life that Dirk hated more than sneers; and he had been fed on them ever since he could remember.
He was altogether unprepared for the reception which the lily received. That suggestion about wings, which seemed so apt, had brought the "queer" sound to his voice that Mart had noticed. If only she had understood, and not spoiled, next morning, the effect of her words.
In the prosaic daylight, the illusion of "wings" being banished, she was bent on knowing how Dirk came into possession of the lily.
"Who sent it, Dirk? I don't believe anybody told you to give it to me. Who would care about my having a flower? Where did you get it?"
"Where do you s'pose?" Dirk's voice was ominously gruff. It is a painful truth that by daylight he was ashamed of his part of the transaction. "I told you she sent it. It's noways likely that I'd take the trouble to make up a lie about that weed. How do I know what she wanted you to have it for? Maybe she thought it matched your looks."
There was a bitter sneer in Dirk's voice, yet all the time he heard the sweet, low voice saying, "That girl with the beautiful golden hair." Suppose he should tell Mart that? Why not? Let me tell you that Dirk Colson would not have repeated that sentence for the world! And yet he did not know why.
Mart's face burned red under his sneer.
"How am I to know who 'she' is?" she said, in bitter scorn. "Some of your bar-room beauties, for whom you dance and whistle, I suppose. You can tell her I would rather have my shawl out of pawn, or some shoes for my feet, enough sight. What do I care for a great flower mocking at me?"
"Pitch it into the fire, then; and it will be many a long day before I bring you anything else," said Dirk, pushing himself angrily back from the table, where he had been eating bread dipped in a choice bit of pork fat.
"There isn't a bit of danger of my doing that," she called after him, mockingly. "There isn't a spark of fire, nor likely to be to-day, unless some of your admirers send me a shovel of coal. Mercy knows, I wish they would."
He mercifully lost part of this sentence, for the reason that before it was concluded he was moving with long, angry strides up the alley.
And then Mart took the broken-nosed pitcher away into the furthermost corner, although she was alone in the room, and laid her face against the cool, pure lily, and wept into it great burning tears. Poor, ignorant soul! She wanted, oh, how she wanted Dirk to be brave and good like Mark Calkins—her one type of manhood. Yet she did not know that she was crushing out the germ which might have grown in his heart. True, she knew herself to be very different from Sallie, but the thought, poor soul, that that was because Mark was so different from Dirk.
Isn't it a pity that the sweet-faced lily could not have told its tender story to both these ignorant ones?
"WHAT MADE HER DIFFERENT?"
"I have heard a good deal about your sister that has interested me. Do you like to talk of her?"
This was the question which Gracie Dennis asked of young Ried as he stood beside her at the piano. She had been playing, and had come to the music alcove for the purpose of turning her music; but now she was touching sweet chords here and there aimlessly, and waiting for his answer.
At the further end of the parlor Mrs. Roberts was entertaining a caller; but the distance between them was so great that, in effect, the young people were alone.
"I like nothing better than to talk of her." Mr. Ried said, with animation; "but I don't know so much about her as I wish I did. She went away when I was quite young. I used to say 'she died,' but since I have awakened to see her cherished plans being carried on all around me I cannot think of her as dead."
"That is what I want to talk about,—her work, or her plans for work. What made her so different from other people, Mr. Ried. Wasn't she different?"
The young man regarded the question thoughtfully before answering.
"Not from all the people," he said at last; "but certainly very different from some. I used to think that all Christians were like her, of course; then, when I saw my mistake, I went to the other extreme, and thought there were none like her on earth. I have discovered that the medium position is the correct one."
"But what I want to know is, what made her different? It wasn't her age. Mrs. Roberts thinks she was young?"
"She was hardly nineteen when she died. Oh, no, it wasn't age; she told me that she used to be very different. She was a Christian from childhood, but she said that she was ashamed to claim the name. There was nothing Christlike about her; still she was a member of the Church. As I remember her, and as I look at other people, my judgment is that, in her early Christian life, she was much like most of the Christians with whom you and I are familiar."
"And what made her different? Was it—that is—do you think it was because she was to die so soon that she had a special experience?"
"Not at all," he said, promptly; "it was before she realized anything about her condition that the great change took place in her. My brother-in-law says that she supposed herself to be in perfect health at the time when she was most marked in her Christian life."
"Ah! but you don't understand; I mean more than that. It is difficult to tell what I mean; I mean—but you know, of course, God knew that she was soon to go to heaven. I thought, perhaps, he gave her a special experience on that account."
"No; oh, no," he said, speaking with great earnestness. "Ester was particularly anxious that no one should suppose her experience exceptional. Little fellow though I was, it seemed to be her desire that I should fully understand this. Don't let anybody make you think that because you are a little boy you must be a sort of half-way Christian,' she used to say, and her eyes would glow with feeling. 'I tried that way for years,' she said, 'and I want you to understand that it is not only sinful, but there is not a particle of happiness to be gotten out of it—not a particle; and I would give almost nothing for what such a Christian can accomplish. The harm one does, more than overbalances all effort for Christ.' I think, perhaps, she felt more deeply on that than on almost any subject; and it was because she thought she had wasted so many years."
"Then do you think that there is, or rather that there should be, no difference in Christians? Have all the same work to do?"
"Not that, quite, of course,—or, I don't know, either. Isn't it all different forms of the Master's work. The children of the home may have each a different task, but each is needed to make the home what it should be, and each worker needs the same spirit of love and unselfishness to enable him to do his part. It isn't a perfect illustration, Miss Dennis. I'm not skillful in that direction; but I know what I mean, and that is a comfort."
"And I know what you mean," Gracie said, not joining in his laugh; "but I am not sure that I believe it. Why, Mr. Ried, that would make a very solemn thing of living."
"Well, did you suppose it was other than solemn? I'm sure it makes a triumphant thing of it, too; and without it we are only a lot of wax figures, dancing to pass the time away."
"But don't you really think that people have a right to have any nice times?"
"Miss Dennis, did you ever see any person who had nicer times than your friend, Mrs. Roberts?"
"Well, Flossy is peculiar; her tastes all seem to lie in this direction; though once they did not, I admit. Papa used to think that she had no talent for anything but dancing. Something changed Flossy's entire character. No one who knew her two years ago could possibly deny that."
"She will serve as an illustration, then, to explain my meaning. I believe, Miss Dennis, that religion should have sufficient power over us to change all our tastes and plans in life, fitting them to the Saviour's use."
"But what would such a rule as that do with most of the Christians of your acquaintance?"
"Ah! I am old and experienced enough to warn you not to make shipwreck of your happiness on that shoal. I hovered around it, and vexed my soul over the whole bewildering question until I suddenly discovered that I was held absolutely responsible only for my own soul, and that the Lord would look after his own."
For a time there was no answer to this.
Gracie let her fingers wander with apparent aimlessness over the keys, drawing out soft, sweet strains. Suddenly she said:—
"What do you expect Flossy will accomplish with that last scheme of hers? I ought to beg her pardon for the familiar name, but I have known her ever since I was a child. Don't you think her attempts for those boys rather hopeless?"
Instantly the young man's eyes filled with tears, and when he spoke his voice indicated deep emotion.
"I can hardly tell you how I feel about those boys. I have been anxious for them so long and felt so hopeless. Do you remember how Elijah sat under a juniper tree, discouraged, and said that he was the only one who had not bowed the knee to Baal, and the Lord told him he was mistaken, that there were five thousand others? It sounds ridiculously egotistical, but I have felt at times something like that; as though I was the only one who cared whether the poor fellows went to destruction or not. But since I have met Mrs. Roberts, and seen how intense she is and single-hearted, and since through her I have met Dr. Everett, and seen how they are trying to work at the same problem, and since I have come to know how Mr. Roberts is at work all the time for young men; and, above all, since that wonderful evening here last Monday, when I saw how two gifted ladies understood the art of turning their accomplishments to account, in order to take those poor fellows captive for Christ, I discovered that there were ways of solving this problem about which I had known nothing, and people to carry it through. It was simply glorious in you to give those fellows such music as you did, and to accomplish by it what you did. My life has been narrow, Miss Dennis; I never saw the piano used for Christ before."
Gracie looked down at the keys, her face aglow. It was a new experience, this being classed among the Christian workers of the world; making her music for other purposes than to amuse the gay friends who chanced to gather around her. She made the keys speak loudly for a few minutes, then softening them, said:—
"You must not class me with Flossy, Mr. Ried. I only did what she wanted done. I am not in the least like her, unselfish and gentle and all that."
But his reply, spoken low, was pleasant to her ears:—
"'By their fruits ye shall know them.'"
He evidently looked upon her as a worker. She could not help feeling that it was pleasant to be so classed. What an intense young man he was! Not in the least like those with whom she had hitherto been most familiar.
There was another voice in the front parlor—a strong, vigorous voice that carried a sense of power with it.
"Ah!" said Ried, his eyes bright, his face eager; "that is Dr. Everett. Just study him if you want another type of the sort of Christian about whom we have been talking; the grandest man!"
Gracie, shielded by the distance, turned on her stool and studied him. Certainly he did not look much as though he were appointed for early death. What a splendid physique it was!
And how thoroughly wide awake and interested he was in the subject under discussion. Bits of the talk floated back to the two at the piano.
"Oh, he is young," Dr. Everett was saying; "I hope for returned vigor in time; but there must be long weeks of patience before he will be ready for his old employment."
"Do you know of whom he is speaking?" Gracie asked.
"I fancy it is that Calkins boy, the one with the broken limb. He is deeply interested in the poor fellow, and is trying to plan employment of some less wearing sort for him, I believe. Dr. Everett is always intensely interested in somebody."
"Is it always the very poor?"
"Not always. I know several quite well-to-do fellows in whom he keeps a careful oversight; but he is grandly interested in the poor. He is taking rank as one of the most successful physicians in the city, and, of course, he is pressed for time; yet he is so continually at the call of the poor that people begin to speak of him as the poor man's doctor. He told me he was proud of that title."
At this point the musicians were appealed to to come to the front parlor, and Gracie had opportunity for a nearer study of the man whom she could not help but admire. He was not likely to suffer from a nearer view; at least, not while Gracie was in the mood that then possessed her. He greeted her cordially, and at once brought her into the conversation by appealing to her for a decision, seeming to take it for granted that she was of the same spirit with himself.
This young lady was taking lessons of life that were designed to be helpful to her if she would but let them. A thoroughly well-educated and cultured gentleman, well fitted to take high rank in society, not in the ministry, and yet thoroughly absorbed in what she had hitherto almost unconsciously set down as ministers' work was a mystery to her. Moreover, for the second time that evening, she felt a curious sense of satisfaction in being classed among the energetic workers of the world. The pretty school-girl, who had lived all her young life in a neighborhood where she was "Gracie Dennis," looked up to, indeed, by her set, and having a decided influence of her own, yet felt it to be a novel experience to hear herself addressed in a clear, firm voice after this manner:—
"Miss Dennis, what means would you advise for interesting a company of young girls in reading, regularly, books which would be of use to them? Of course, I speak of a class of girls who have done no reading of any account heretofore, and who have no knowledge in the matter."
"It is something about which I have not thought at all," said Gracie, her pretty face all in a flush. "But I should suppose the way would be to take one girl at a time, and study her, to find what would be likely to interest and help her, and also to get such an influence over her that she would read what I wanted her to."
"First catch your hare, eh? Good!" said the doctor, with an approving glance towards Mrs. Roberts. "The longer I live the more convinced am I that individual effort is what accomplishes the great things in this world."
There was more talk about this and kindred matters; and Gracie found herself drawn out, and her interest excited on themes about which she had supposed she knew nothing.
Then occurred an interruption,—a ringing of the door-bell.
"For Miss Dennis," said the messenger; but she handed the card to Mrs. Roberts.
There was just a moment of hesitation, while that lady apparently studied the name, then she said, composedly:—
"This is Professor Ellis, Gracie. Do you wish to receive him this evening?"
Since I have known Mrs. Roberts well, I have studied her innocently sincere manner, with not a little curiosity as to the probable effect on the world, suppose it were possible for others to adopt her method. The actual practical effect with her is that she succeeds often in wisely deceiving, while intending to be perfectly sincere. For instance, her question to Gracie after a moment of hesitation, during which she asked herself, "What ought I to do?" and immediately answered herself, "There is nothing for me to do, but to be perfectly straight-forward."
Her question was intended to say to Gracie: "I trust you. What your father has directed you to do, I feel sure you will obey." But it said different things from that to Gracie. Ever since she had been told that she might make her old acquaintance, Flossy, a visit, this highly-strung young lady had been suspicious that this was a device of her stepmother to get pleasantly rid of her for a few weeks. She surmised that a very carefully elaborate account of her sins had been written out by this same stepmother for the benefit of her young hostess, and that special directions had been given for guarding her from the wolf, Professor Ellis. She would have spoiled the entire scheme by haughtily refusing to leave home had not the innocent delight of a young girl over the thought of visiting a beautiful strange city gotten the better of her pride. The gently-put question of her hostess disarmed a whole nest of suspicions. It was hardly possible that it had been hinted to Flossy that her guest might attempt to elope with this man, else she would not with serene face be asking whether it was her wish to receive him.
"If you please," she made haste to answer, her cheeks glowing the while, and Mrs. Roberts gave instant direction that the gentleman be shown to the parlor.
There were several new lessons set for Miss Gracie Dennis to learn that evening. One was that Professor Ellis, with his faultless dress and excessive politeness, his finished bows and smiles, that would have done credit to any ball-room in the land, his accurate knowledge of all the printed rules of etiquette, yet in Mrs. Roberts' parlor, contrasted with Dr. Everett, and even with young Ried, the dry-goods clerk, appeared at a disadvantage.
She was slow in learning the lesson: on that first evening she simply stared at it in bewilderment. What did it mean? There was an attempt to draw the professor into the circle, to continue the conversation that had been so animated and interesting before his entrance. The effect was much like that produced in striking a discordant note in a hitherto faultless piece of music. Young men out of business needing help, needing an encouraging word, an out-stretched hand! Professor Ellis had words, and hands, but he might have been without either for all the help they gave him in responding to efforts like these. Books to help uplift the young, to give them high ideas of life, to enthuse them with desires to live for a purpose! Truly he could only stare blankly at the suggestion. What did he know of books written for such purposes? Yet Gracie had supposed him to be literary in his tastes and pursuits. Certainly he read French? Yes, French novels! He was quite familiar with some of such a character that, had Gracie been a good French scholar and ever likely to come in contact with a copy of them, he would not have dared to mention their names in her presence. More than once of late had the stepmother wished that her young daughter understood the language well enough to be aware that the man whom she admired used frequently smooth-sounding French oaths. But alas for Gracie, when he had so poisoned her mother's influence over this dangerously pretty girl, that she would have believed his word at any time rather than that mother's. Well, he read other than French novels; Charles Reade, for instance, and some of the more recent authors fashionable in certain circles. It is true that Gracie was not acquainted with them, that her father would not allow a copy of their books to come freely into his home, and Gracie was much too honorable to read them in private. But it is also true that while professing to admire this trait in her, as charming in a young daughter, the professor had also, pityingly and gently, told this young daughter that these things were her father's concessions to the narrow age and trammelled profession to which he belonged; that the fact was, free thought was discouraged, because there was that in every church which would not bear its light; that her wise father was one of a hundred in recognizing this, and trying to shield her while she was young.
You are also to remember that she was young, and therefore forgive her that she did not detect the contradictory sophistry in the professor's words. He really understood how to sugar-coat poison as well as any man of his stamp could.
"HERE WAS HIS OPPORTUNITY."
But the question which would keep forcing itself on Gracie Dennis was this: "If he really knows of nice books, full of 'the beautiful' and 'the ennobling,' that would enlighten the race, as he has often told me, why doesn't he mention some of them now? There is no minister here 'trammelled by long years of narrowing education.' How does he know but that these people are as 'advanced' in their ideas as he is himself?"
I do not mean that she was conscious of thinking these thoughts, but that they hovered on the edge, as it were, of her mind, making her feel ill at ease. Dr. Everett, on his part, seemed courteously bent on securing an expression of the professor's opinion about matters of which he either could not, or would not, talk. When at last the disturbed gentleman resolved to violate what Gracie was sure was a law of good breeding, and address her in French, what with her embarrassment lest others should understand, and her own marked ignorance of the language, she found great difficulty in making a free translation. "Upon my word, I wish you understood French, or some other tongue, so that we could escape from this boredom. Does the poor little prisoner have much of this to endure? Cannot we escape to the music-room, and talk things over?"
Gracie cast a frightened glance about her to see if there were others who understood better than herself this sentence, which, for aught she knew, might contain something startling. But Alfred was busily engaged in looking up the name of a book which he had vainly tried to recall, and Dr. Everett was apparently serenely oblivious to any language but his mother-tongue. Very soon after this Gracie managed to escape with her caller to the music alcove; thus much of the French she had understood, and at least Professor Ellis could play; which fact she resolved that the people in the front parlor should speedily understand. Ah, but he could play! and herein lay one of his strong fascinations for the music-loving girl. For a time the most ravishing strains rolled through the parlor hushing into rapt attention the group gathered there, who had just been reinforced by the coming of Mr. Roberts. By degrees the strains grew fainter and fainter, and at last ceased altogether, as the professor, still on the music-stool, bent over Gracie, seated in a low chair, and apparently found fluent speech at last.
Mrs. Roberts, meantime, was ill at ease. What would Dr. Dennis and Marion say, could they have a peep at this moment into her back parlor? Was she being faithful to her trust? Yet what was there she could do? She tried to sustain her part in the conversation, but her troubled gaze, constantly wandering elsewhere, betrayed her. Dr. Everett's keen eyes were upon her.
"Are you particularly interested in that man?" he asked, abruptly.
Mrs. Roberts smiled faintly.
"I am particularly interested in that girl," she said.
"How do you like her present companionship?"
"Not at all," she answered, quickly.
Whereupon Mr. Roberts began to question.
"May I know, doctor, whether you have any other reason than that of intuition for asking the question?"
"Possibly not," said the doctor, guardedly. "It maybe a case of mistaken identity. Mrs. Roberts, would you like to have me investigate something that may be to his disadvantage?"
Mrs. Roberts had a prompt answer ready:—
"There are reasons why it is specially important that such an investigation should be made and reported to me. May I commission you?"
The doctor bowed; and the subject of Professor Ellis was immediately dropped.
During the following week certain innovations took place in Mrs. Roberts well-ordered household. At the end of the conservatory was a long, bright, and hitherto unfurnished room; it had been designed as a sort of second conservatory, whenever the beauties of that department should outgrow their present bounds, but meantime other plants had taken root and blossomed in the mistress' heart. Early in this week the unused room had been opened and cleaned; then began to arrive packages of various shapes and sizes; a roll of carpeting, and two young men from the carpet store; and there followed soon after the sound of hammering. Furniture-wagons halted before the door, leaving their burdens. Men and women flitted to and fro, busy and important.
It was Saturday night before Mr. Roberts and his young clerk were invited in to admire and criticise the new room. Mr. Roberts, at least, was prepared to appreciate its transformation.
The floor was covered with a heavy carpet in lovely shades of mossy green, and easy chairs and couches in tints that either matched or made delightful contrasts with the carpet abounded. The walls were hung with pictures and charts and maps. A study-table occupied the centre of the room—one of those charming tables, full of mysterious drawers and unexpected corners; paper and pens and inks in various colors were disposed about this table in delightful profusion.
Other tables, plenty of them, small and neat, each of a different shape or design, were stationed at intervals, in convenient proximity to comfortable chairs. Nothing could be further removed from one's idea of a school-room than was that long, beautiful parlor; yet when you thought of it, and took a second, deliberate survey, nothing that could have contributed to the enjoyment of pupils was missing. A small cabinet organ occupied an alcove, and music-books of various grades were strewn over it. Toward this spot Mrs. Roberts smiled significantly as her eye caught Alfred Ried's, and she said:—
"I have visions of sacred Sabbath evening half-hours, connected with this corner, one of these days; meantime, is this a pleasant room for our Monday evenings?"
But Alfred could not answer her; his head was turned away, and there was a suspicious lump in his throat, that made him know better than to attempt speech. He was standing at that moment under one of the wall-texts that the gaslight illumined until it glowed, and the words stood out with startling clearness:—
"Let us not sleep as do others, but let us watch and be sober."
His sister's text; one that, perhaps more than any other, was on her lips when she talked with him; one that hung at her coffin's head when he, a little boy, stood beside the coffin and looked down at her face, and looked up at that text, and took a mental photograph of both to live in his heart forever.
"This is your special chair," Mrs. Roberts said, smiling up at him; and he understood her,—here was his opportunity to live out that text for his sister. Wouldn't he try!
"Well," said Gracie, drawing a long breath, "as a study it is certainly a success. One can easily see, Flossy, why you were born with the ability to tell at a glance what colors harmonized, and just where things fitted in. I can't imagine anything prettier than this, and I cannot imagine what you are going to do with it."
Whereupon they sat down to talk that important question over: what they were going to try to do. Sometimes I have wondered whether Ester, from her beautiful home, could look down on it all, and whether she smiled over the fact that her work was doing so much more than she had planned? She had roused in her little brother an ambition that had grown with his years, and that had helped to hold him away from many temptations: so much, doubtless, she had foreseen; but what a blessed thing it was that she had touched, in those long ago years, influences which had drawn her brother, in his young and perilous manhood, into intimate relations with such people as Mr. and Mrs. Roberts, so that they sat down familiarly to talk over mutual interests! But for Ester's words, spoken long ago, but for her strong desires transmitted to him, he might have sat with a very different circle, and talked over widely different schemes. On the edge of this circle Gracie Dennis hovered. She could not but be interested in their talk, for she was a Christian, and her father was a Christian, and she had, all her life breathed in the atmosphere of a Christian home.
At the same time she could but imagine some of their ideas wild ones, for she had never been associated with people who widely overstepped the conventional ways of doing things; and she had, of late, been much with Professor Ellis who had a sort of gentlemanly sneer for every phase of Christian work, and, so far as could be discovered, believed in nothing. He had not been outspoken, it is true, and herein lay one of the dangers. He was too skillful to be outspoken; but the subtle poison had been working, and although Gracie could not help being interested in those queer boys, she could not help thinking Flossy's whole scheme exceedingly visionary, and expected it to come to grief. The puzzling question was, why did Mr. Roberts, being a keen-sighted man, permit it all! Or was he so much in love with Flossy that he could not bear to thwart even her wildest flights? It was strange, too, to see a young man like Alfred Ried so absorbed; his sister must have had wonderful power over him, Gracie thought. She went back to his sister's influence, always, in trying to explain the matter, and never gave a thought to Christ's influence. Meantime she listened to the various plans proposed for the first Monday evening, and was sufficiently interested to gather her pretty face in a frown when the distant peal from the door-bell sounded through the house.
"What a pity to be interrupted by a caller!" she exclaimed. "This room is so much nicer than the parlor. Flossy, don't you hope it is some one to see Mr. Roberts on business?"
"No," said Mrs. Roberts, shaking her head, with a smile, "I feel in special need of Mr. Roberts just now. Evan, I really think we must be excused to callers for this one evening; there are so many things to arrange."
"Let us wait and see," answered Mr. Roberts "perhaps the Lord sent the caller here to help us, or to be helped."
At that moment came the card.
"Oh, it is Dr. Everett!" was Mrs. Roberts' exclamation. "Let us have him come directly here. Evan, please go and escort him. You were right,—the Lord has sent him to help us. I don't know how, I'm sure; but he is just the man to help everywhere."
And the circle instantly widened itself to receive Dr. Everett.
It took almost no time to speak the commonplace of the occasion, and get back at once to the business of the hour. It was evident that Dr. Everett needed no lengthy explanations, and there was apparently nothing bewildering to his mind in the plan. True, it was new to him, but he seemed to spring at once to the centre of their thoughts. His eyes glowed for a moment, and he said with peculiar emphasis:—
"Ried, when the son of man cometh, he will surely find some faith on the earth!"
Then he gave himself to intensest listening and questioning, and presently followed his questions with suggestions which showed that unconventional ways of working were not altogether new to him.
As for Gracie, she had as much as she could do to listen intelligently; she almost caught her breath over the rapidity with which the talkers moved from one scheme to another. All the time there was a curious process of comparison between this man and Professor Ellis going on in her mind. Not that she wished to compare the two! She told herself that it was absurd to do so; none the less she did it. For instance, she reminded herself that she had mentally assented promptly to the suggestion of inviting the doctor to this room to talk this strange scheme over; she had recognized the fitness of the act. But suppose Professor Ellis should call, would it not be simply absurd to think of explaining to him the uses of this unique room? Who would for a moment think of suggesting his name as a helper?
* * * * *
I do not know how to describe to you the appearance of that room on Monday evening when the boys were in it. I do not know whether the sight to you would have been pitiful or ludicrous. How can I tell—not knowing you? There was a dreadful incongruity between the soiled, ragged clothes and matted hair and unwashed hands and the exquisite purity which prevailed around them. Of course you could have seen that, but the all-important question, the answer to which would have stamped your place in the world's workshop, would have been, Do you see any further than that? and seeing further—which way? Do you see the possibilities, or the certainties of failure? Oh, no, I am wrong; it would take more than that to tell where you belong. Dr. Everett saw the possibilities and gloried in them. Gracie Dennis thought she saw the certainty of failure, and was sorry for it. But Professor Ellis would have seen the certainty of failure, and would have met it with a sneer, if he had not been too indifferent even for that. As for Mrs. Roberts, did she, or did she not, represent a different and higher type than any of the others? She thought not much about either success or failure, but pushed steadily forward the plan that she believed she had gotten on her knees, born of the Spirit. If it really were of God, nothing could make it fail; but if she mistook, and the plan was only hers, mere failure in that direction would signify nothing; she would have but to try again. Something of this she felt, but did not reason out, for she was no logician.
What the boys saw was a great, splendid room, the like of which they had never seen before, for they recognized, without being able to explain, the difference between it and the parlors, and felt freer in it. They all came, and they looked not one whit better than on the Monday evening before. Over this fact Gracie Dennis, with all her public scoffing, was, in private, a little disappointed. It is true she had not expected to see them again; but if they came, she thought it possible that they might have been tempted to appear with clean hands and faces. Possibly some were so tempted, and but for the difficulties in the way, might really have tried for this. But Gracie was not sufficiently enlightened to dream of difficulties in the way of simply washing one's face and hands.
During the Saturday evening conference it had been decided that Mr. Roberts must make acquaintance with his guests. It would never do to have them come familiarly to his house, and he not be able to recognize them on the streets. Several plans were suggested for introducing him skilfully to them, but he disapproved of them all.
"No," he said, "I'll tell you what we'll do. I will introduce myself. You may receive them, Flossy, and then retire for a few minutes, and I'll let myself in by the conservatory passage, and make myself acquainted to the best of my abilities. In ten minutes, Flossy, I'll give you leave to return. As for the rest of you, don't dare to venture in until I have made good my claim as the head of the house. I am jealous of you, perhaps."
To this plan Mrs. Roberts readily assented, but the young clerk looked doubtful. In common with the rest of his employees, he stood in wholesome awe of the keen-eyed, thorough business man, who seemed to know, as by a sort of instinct, when anything in any department of the great store was not moving according to rule. His knowledge of Mr. Roberts, outside of the store, was limited, and he expected to find the boys, if not frightened, so awed that they would resolve never to be caught inside that room again.
However, he of course only looked his fears. He was too much afraid of the great merchant to express them, and it had been understood, when they separated, that this plan was to be carried out.
"I WONDER WHAT THEY'RE ALL AFTER!"
In the library waited Gracie and Mr. Ried, while Mrs. Roberts went merrily to see whether the boys or their host had proved the stronger.
"I don't believe this part of the programme will work," Alfred said, confidently, the moment the door closed after Mrs. Roberts. "Those fellows will all be afraid of Mr. Roberts, and we shall lose what little hold we have on them."
"They don't look to me as though it ever occurred to them to be afraid of anything," Gracie said; but Alfred Ried, who had studied deeper into this problem of the different classes of society, was ready with his answer.
"Yes they are; they can be awed, and made to feel uncomfortable to the degree that they will resolve not to appear in that region again. One cannot judge from their behavior in Sabbath-school. Some way they recognize a mission school as being in a sense their property, and behave accordingly; but in a man's own house, surrounded by things of which they do not even know the name, he has them at a disadvantage, and can easily rouse within them the feeling that they are 'trapped.' Than which there is nothing those fellows dread so much, I believe."
"But they were not afraid of Flossy last week, even surrounded by the elegances of her parlors and dining-room."
"Ah!" he said, his eyes alight, "she has a wisdom born of God, I think, for managing these and all other concerns. She is unlike everybody else."
Whereupon Gracie Dennis laughed; not a disagreeable laugh, but there came to her just then a sense of the strangeness of thinking that pretty Flossy Shipley, whom she had known all her life, and half-scorned from the heights of her childhood because she was a silly little thing, who could not do her problems in class, should have a wisdom unlike any others. Yet, almost immediately her laugh was stayed, because the change in Flossy was so great that she, too, recognized it as born of God. Sometimes it came with force to this proud young girl that if God could do so much for Flossy, what might he not be willing to do with those whom he had made intellectually her superior, if they were but ready to be led?
The young man, who was studying her, watched the grave look deepen on her face, and wondered at its source. What a pretty face it was. Oh, much more than pretty; there was great strength in it and sweetness, too, of a certain sort, but he could not help comparing the sort with that in some other faces, and he wondered over the difference. This young lady was a Christian. Why should her Christian experience stamp her with such a different expression from that which others wore? He always finished this sort of sentence with a blank space first, as though he did not choose to have himself tell himself any names. Yet he spoke a name forcibly enough, still gazing earnestly at Gracie.
"Did you ever meet Miss Joy Saunders?"
Gracie turned toward him a laughing face.
"No, but we are very anxious to, Flossy and I. We have both been told that we ought to know her, and told so earnestly that we really think we ought. Who is she? Is she, too, unlike anybody else?"
"Very," he said, promptly. "I know her very little; she is the daughter of our landlady; I meet her in the hall on rare occasions, and sometimes catch glimpses of her just vanishing from some room as I enter; but as for being acquainted with her, I suppose I am not. I think—though of that I am by no means sure—that she is engaged to Dr. Everett.
"Oh, then, of course he would think naturally that people ought to know her. What is she like?"
"Like nothing," said Alfred, with great promptness. "Did you ever know a person named Joy?"
"No;—what a singular name."
"Well, it fits. She is very far removed from mirth, and she is not what people call gay, and she is not outspoken apparently at any time, though, as I say, I do not know her; but there is something in her face that fits the name; I do not know what it is. Sometimes I think it is the shining of Christ's face reflected in her; but the puzzle is, why do not other faces have it? Faces which belong to him?"
"Perhaps there is a difference in the degree of belonging."
Gracie spoke the words very gently, wondering meanwhile at the way in which this thought chimed in with hers about Flossy.
"Oh, there is. But why should there be? If I belong to Christ, I belong, don't I? There is no half-way service possible. Why do I not so look that others take knowledge of me that I have been with Jesus?"
"How do you know but they do?"
"Ah, I know. I know too well. They are more likely a great deal to take knowledge that I have been with Satan. I feel the frown all over my face a great deal of the time; and the world goes astray a great many times, when I suppose it is just myself that is wrong. But, Miss Dennis, I hunger for the shining of his face in me."
"That must be the meaning of the beatitude which puzzled my childhood," she answered trying to speak lightly, to hide feelings that were deeply moved: "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled."
"Thank you," he said, smiling; "there is actually a promise! I had not thought of it. And yet"—the thoughtful frown gathering almost immediately—"do you suppose that a person who really hungered for a certain thing could be satisfied with anything else? I often have an hour of what at the moment seems to me like hunger for Him, but the hour passes, and I get filled—with business, or with plans, or possibly with annoyances, and feel nothing but a general irritation for everybody. Do you think there can be anything genuine about such desires, so easily turned aside?"
"Oh, I do not know," said Gracie, hastily. "Why do you ask me such things? Did not I tell you I was not good? Ask those people who are unlike all others. Why don't you ask this Joy? She could tell you, I presume. I can tell you nothing, save that this is a very strange world, not half so nice as I once thought it, and I don't like to think about things."
How different he was from other young men with whom she had spent fifteen minutes many a time in gay banter! This was, after all, the thought uppermost in her mind at the moment. Nice Christian men, of whom her father spoke well, and who, people said, were young men to be proud of. It seemed to her that she knew them by the dozens, yet with which one of them had she ever carried on such a conversation as this? With which one could she have attempted any thing of the kind, without leading him to suppose that she was taking leave of her senses?
She recalled some of the gay words that she had spoken with these others, and tried, hurriedly, to decide why it would sound to her perfectly absurd to talk with Alfred Ried in that way. However, she did not want to talk with him; he was too full of questionings. "And questions," said poor Gracie, "are all that I can ask myself. I want somebody to talk with who is assured of the ground on which he stands, and can tell me why he stands there."
There was not time for further talk—they were summoned to the new room. Bursts of laughter greeted their ears as they made their way eagerly across the hall, and Gracie took time to remark that the boys were certainly not awed into silence, before the opening door let them into the brightly-lighted scene. Every boy was laughing, not quietly, but immoderately, and the centre of attraction was evidently Mr. Roberts.
"I have been giving our friends an account of an old army experience," he said, in explanation to Gracie, "and we have been enjoying a laugh together over the old memory. You are all acquainted with Miss Dennis, I think, young gentlemen?"
Clearly there was no need for any one to introduce Mr. Roberts to the boys; apparently they knew him now better than they did any of the others. Yet as Gracie, after shaking hands with each of the guests, took a vacant seat by Nimble Dick, she was greeted with a confidential whisper:—
"That's a jolly chap as ever I saw; and I never heard anything to beat the yarn he told us, for cuteness. Who is he?"
"Why, he is Mr. Evan Roberts, the owner of this house."
"My eyes!" said Dick, gazing about him in a startled way. "Look here; he ain't that Roberts from the big store on Fourth Street?"
"Yes, he is; he is one of the partners in that store."
Then did Nimble Dick give a low whistle,—suddenly cut short, as the other boys looked at him,—and sat up straight in his chair, and for at least a minute was awed; or else was bewildered. If his mind could have been looked into for a moment something like this might have been seen there: "And here I am sittin' in one of his chairs, and been laughin' to kill over his funny story! If this ain't the greatest lark out! I wonder what they're all after, anyhow!"
Then the real business of the evening commenced.
I should like to describe that evening; but it is really worse to describe than the boys. It was designed to be one of those most difficult evenings, where every act and almost every word has been previously arranged, but arranged in such a manner as to appear like an impromptu effort, the result of merely the happenings of the hour.
For instance, Mrs. Roberts aimed at nothing less formidable than the teaching of these boys to read and write; and know as well as ever I know it, that to frankly own that she was ready and willing to give her time and patience in so teaching them would be to outwit herself. They did not belong to the class who can be beguiled into evening schools. There are such; Mark Calkins would have seized such an opportunity and rejoiced over it, but these were lower in the scale; they did not realize their need, and they had what they in ignorance called "independence"; they were not to be "trapped" by evening schools. Therefore it required diplomacy; and no people can be more diplomatic, on occasion, than certain most innocent-looking little women. Mrs. Roberts had studied her way step by step.
Therefore it was, that by the most natural passage possible, she led the way to a discussion of different styles of writing, bringing forth to aid her a certain old autograph album which had been to many places of note, among others Chautauqua, and had the names of distinguished persons, as well as of many who were not distinguished, except for Christian endurance in consenting to write in an autograph album. Good writers were talked about and selected, and poor writers were talked about, and it was said by some one, accidentally of course, that a good hand was really an accomplishment.
"It is more than that!" declared Mr. Roberts. "A man's business life often turns on it. I have myself had to turn away from several otherwise suitable helpers in our business because they really could not write a good, clear hand, that could be read without studying."
"Are you a good writer, Miss Gracie?"
This remark, coming suddenly to Gracie from her host, almost embarrassed her, for you are not to suppose that the very words by which these themes should be introduced had been planned, and it had not occurred to Gracie that so personal a question might be asked her. But she rallied quickly.
"No, sir; I am sorry to say that I am not. I write what papa calls a mincing hand; all jumbled up together, you know, or running into each other, the letters are, and so difficult to read that papa said when I came away he hoped I would call on his friend, Dr. Stuart, every day, and write a letter on his type-writer."
"What is that?" interrupted Nimble Dick, his face curious.
"What? A type-writer? Oh, it is a strange little machine used instead of the pen—at least, a very few people use it. It is quite new, I think, and must be very curious. I never saw one, but the writing looks just like print. Dr. Stuart, a pastor in the city, is my papa's friend, and writes to him on his, and papa reads the letter with great satisfaction, saying to me, 'There, daughter, that is something like! People who cannot write well enough for others to read should print.'"
"They are not so very uncommon, Miss Dennis," explained Dr. Everett, who saw the eagerness on Nimble Dick's face. "It is a comparatively new invention, but is being caught up very promptly. I think nearly all the leading lawyers use them, and those who do not own them are getting their copying done at the rooms. They are very ingenious little instruments."
"Did you say you never saw one?"
This question from Mr. Roberts to Gracie, and he added:—
"Mrs. Roberts, I believe you have never had other than the first glimpse I showed you in the Parker Building. I have an idea. Suppose I rent one of the little fellows to interest us? It would be pleasant to look into it and see how it works. Did none of you ever see one? Well, now, we'll try for that on next Monday evening. I'll have one sent up to-morrow, and, Miss Gracie, we'll appoint you showman for the following Monday; so it is to be hoped that you will employ your leisure in learning how to manage the creature, and perhaps send your father a readable letter at the same time."
Now, as may readily be supposed, all this about machinery had not been arranged for beforehand, but was a side issue, born of the fact that the watchful servant of his Master saw an eager look in the eyes of the boy Dick directly there was anything said that suggested machinery. One of the great aims of these evenings was to study character, however developed.
Having turned his company from the regular channel, Mr. Roberts made haste to put them skilfully back where they were before:—
"Still, it would be a pity to resort to machinery simply because one did not know how to write well. I would rather set to work to correct the error. I happen to know one of our number who can write a very enviable hand. Do you know, Ried, that the letter you wrote me was the first thing which attracted me to you? I remember I showed the note to one of our senior partners, who was particularly disturbed by poor writing, and he said: 'Engage him, Roberts, do! A young man who can write like that will be a relief.' Mrs. Roberts, I move you that we resolve ourselves at this moment into a writing-class, to be taught by Mr. Ried. My dear sir, will you take us in hand?"
Something of this kind had been planned—at least, it had been planned that Ried should be asked to do this thing; but he found the actual asking embarrassing, and struggled with it with flushing cheeks. Gracie came to his aid:—
"I don't know whether I'll take lessons or not. Who wants to expose one's ignorance? Will you teach? Must we each give a specimen of our present attainments?"
Instantly Ried divined the reason for the question.
"No," he said, eagerly; "oh, no; I should begin with those horrors of your childhood, pothooks or something of that sort; lines and curves, you know. There are not many of them after all in our letters, and when once a person has conquered them it is easy to put them together."
There was more talk, easy and social. Mr. and Mrs. Roberts, the doctor, and Gracie seemed equally interested in the project, and questioned young Ried, until he assured them that he began to feel like a veritable professor. Apparently the boys were forgotten. This very fact put them at their ease, and they listened, interested and amused over the thought that these ladies and gentlemen wanted to go to school!
At first I do not think it occurred to one of them that he was included in the proposal to form an writing-class.
How was it done? I am not sure that any one of the eager group of workers could have told you afterward, so excited did they become over this first scheme. Nobody could remember just what words were said, nor who said them, nor whether the boys all looked equally startled when paper and pen were put into each hand. They remembered that some shook their heads emphatically, and that Nimble Dick spoke plainly: "No you don't! I can't write any more than a duck can, and I never expect to." Mrs. Roberts knew that Dirk Colson's dark face turned a fierce red, and he snapped the offered pen half-way across the table with his indignant thumb and finger. But of these words and acts nobody apparently took any notice. The writing began, and the first marks given as copies were so simple, looked so easy to do, and the attempts of the ladies and gentlemen fell so far short of what the teacher desired, and were so unmercifully criticised by him, and the criticisms were so merrily received by the writers, that at last the whole thing took the form of a joke to Nimble Dick's mind, and he became possessed with a burning desire to try. One by one the boys stealthily followed his example; Alfred taking care to watch eagerly, to commend both Stephen Crowley and Gracie Dennis in the same breath for some true stroke, and criticise both Mrs. Roberts and Nimble Dick for not holding the pen aright.
The entire party became so interested that only Mrs. Roberts knew just when Dirk Colson stealthily filliped back his pen from the distance to which it had been rolled, and, sitting upright that he might attract the less notice, tried his hand on the curve which was giving even Dr. Everett trouble.
When the young teacher discovered it he made also another discovery, which he proclaimed:—
"Upon my word, I beg the pardon of each of you, but Colson here has made the only respectable R-curve there is in the company."
Then if his sister Mart had seen the glow on Dirk's face, I am not sure that she would have known him. There was a momentary transformation.
As for Mrs. Roberts, she bowed low over the letter she was carefully forming, but it was to say in soft whisper heard by one ear alone:—
"YOURN'S THE WAY!"
You are not to suppose, because this first Monday evening (which, by the way, was concluded with sandwiches and coffee) was a success, pronounced so by all concerned, that therefore the ones which followed were all rose-color.
Fortunately, not one of the workers expected this, and so were brave and cheerful under drawbacks.
These were numerous and varied.
After the first novelty wore off, it took at times only the most trivial excuses to keep the boys away. Sometimes when they called their conduct was anything but encouraging. They lolled in the easy-chairs, smelling strongly of tobacco and other bar-room odors, refused insolently to apply themselves to any work at hand, audibly pronounced the whole thing "slow," and in numberless ways severely tried the patience of both Alfred and Gracie.
For the others, they had counted the cost,—at least the gentlemen had,—and expected to move slowly, even to appear to go backward some of the time. As for Mrs. Roberts, I have told you that she worked in a peculiar manner, with the motto, "This one thing I do," apparently ever before her.
Each evening was distinct in itself, with efforts to make and obstacles to overcome; and at its close she had a way of laying it aside, as something with which her part was done, not attempting even to calculate results; then she was ready to turn to a new day, and work steadily for that.
The winter was slipping away and Gracie Dennis lingered. She could hardly have told you why, yet there were many apparent reasons. Mrs. Roberts wanted her, rejoiced in her, and coaxed irresistibly as often as the thought of going home was mentioned. Then Gracie, laugh over the peculiar work going on as she might, was undeniably interested in those boys. She was working for them, therefore of course she was interested.
"I don't see how you can go this week?" would young Ried say to her, with a perplexed air; "you know we have that matter all planned for next Monday evening. How can we carry out the scheme if you are not there to do your part?"
Then would Gracie laugh and demur and admit, to herself only, that it was very pleasant to be needed—as she certainly was—for one night more; and so the nights passed.
Her work was to be "Professor of Elocution," as Mr. Roberts gaily called her when the workers were alone together. It had been discovered that she could read both prose and poetry with effect. So a reading-class was organized, and they chose for the first evening, not one of Bryant's or Whittier's gems, nor selections from Milton or Shakespeare, which would have suited part of the company, nor yet the "Easy Readings" in some standard spelling-book, which would have fitted the capacity of the others, but with great care and much discussion, one of Will Carleton's descriptive poems, full of homely, yet tender language, full of pathos and of humor, was unanimously selected.
The first evening reading had been commenced with nuts and apples. There are those who can see no connection between this and the intellectual; happily for the characters with whom she had to deal, Mrs. Roberts was not one of them. While the others were still enjoying the refreshments she took the book and read. This was her quiet little sacrifice. It was not pleasant to her to become a public reader. It required courage to get through with one verse, with Dr. Everett sitting opposite, and Gracie Dennis on a low seat at her side, and her husband listening intently. Mrs. Roberts was not a good reader, and was aware of it. She pronounced the words correctly, it is true; but when you had said that, you had said all that there was to offer in praise of her effort. She had some exasperating faults. But she bravely read the two verses, and some of the boys listened, and one of them laughed; he had caught a gleam of the fun in the poem. This, of course, was Nimble Dick.
Then Alfred Ried made the same effort on the same verses; his performance was very little better, and he, too, knew it. He could write, but he was by no means a public reader; this was his offering to the general good. If those fellows, by reason of his mistakes, could be induced to climb, he was willing to offer his pride on the altar. No matter by what petty trials they were caught so that they were really caught.
Then followed Gracie Dennis, and her own father, acceptable preacher though he was, might with credit to himself have taken lessons of her. She was certainly, for one so young and so unprofessional, a magnificent reader. So indeed was Marion Wilbur, and she had enjoyed teaching Gracie.
The poem blossomed in her hand. The crunching of nuts and apples entirely ceased. The boys sat erect and listened and laughed and flushed and swallowed suspiciously over some of the homely pathos. They had never heard anything like that before, and they evidently appreciated it. She read through to the end.
Then were unloosed the tongues! They exclaimed in delight:—
"What an accomplishment it is!" said Mr. Roberts; "and how few possess it. Doctor, how many really fine readers have you heard in your life?"
"About three," said the doctor, laconically.
"Well," said Mrs. Roberts, "let us all be exceptions. Gracie, teach us how. I will try again."
And she did, on the first verse of the poem; with better success than before; but how sharp the contrast between her reading and Gracie's, she knew! It was not easy for her to read.
I don't know, possibly I am mistaken, but it seems to me that I have known people ready for large sacrifices, who yet would shrink painfully from these little ones.
In discussing the programme for the evening, the question had been, when each had done his part, How were they to influence the boys to join? Could they join? Was it probable that they knew enough about reading to attempt to speak the words of the poem? With reference to this obstacle a poem had been chosen full of simple, homely words, such as are in common use; especially was the first verse free from what Mr. Roberts called "shoals." Having heard the verse read several times, it was hoped that some one of the seven might have courage to attempt it, but Gracie did not believe that such would be the case.
"I don't see how we can ask them, and do it naturally," said Dr. Everett. "It is such an unheard-of thing, you know; and I am afraid, do our best, it will present itself to them as a patronage, and that will be fatal. The people who are low enough to need patronage are the very ones who won't endure it."
Whereupon various ways of managing the matter were discussed and discarded; suddenly Mrs. Roberts turned to her young lieutenant, who had been silent for some time, and said:—
"What are you thinking of, Mr. Ried? Do you see a way out?"
"No," he said; "I have neither knowledge nor skill in such matters, but my thoughts just then were far away; I was thinking how curiously, certain apparently trivial instances of one's childhood will stand out with almost startling prominence."
"What sent you off in that direction?" questioned Dr. Everett. "There must have been an association of ideas."
"Oh, there was; I was thinking how vividly I remembered a discussion between my mother and my sister, younger than Ester, in regard to some matter which perplexed them; and when they could come to no satisfactory conclusion they appealed to my sister Ester, who was resting as usual on her lounge. I can seem to hear her voice as she said: 'We haven't to do anything about it until to-morrow; perhaps to-morrow will have a light of its own for our direction."
"Thank you!" Mrs. Roberts said, her eyes lighting with an appreciative smile; "we have not to do anything about this until Monday night, and perhaps Monday night will see us wise."
I don't know how many thought of this little conversation when Monday evening came, but certainly Alfred Ried and Mrs. Roberts did, for she glanced at him and smiled significantly when Dr. Everett, having apparently forgotten that anything beyond their own pleasure was in contemplation, challenged Gracie to a discussion as to the emphasis on a certain word in the second line; he had never heard it so read, and he called for an analysis that would sustain the reading, and received it, and was not yet prepared to yield the point, but read the verse as he had imagined it should be read, and then Gracie, at Mr. Roberts' call, repeated it with her rendering, and I am not sure but all parties concerned actually forgot their final object in the interest of the discussion until they were suddenly called to it by an interrupting voice:—
"Your'n's the way," it said, with an emphatic nod of a shock of matted hair, "your'n's the way."
It was Dirk Colson. He had forgotten for the moment that anybody was listening to him, save the two readers. He was looking directly at Gracie, and the nods were evidently intended for her.
"Of course it is!" she said, eagerly, her face flushing with a triumph that had nothing to do with the right emphasis; "you read it, won't you, and show these people that we are right?"
Afterward Mrs. Roberts confessed that she involuntarily placed her hand on her heart with a dim idea of hushing its beating lest others would hear, so important to her did the moment seem. Dr. Everett looked dismayed. The least hopeful one of the seven seemed Dirk. None of them knew of his dangerous talent for imitation. None of them believed that he would make any attempt at reading, but thought he would shrink into deeper sullenness. All of them were mistaken. He reached for the book, glanced for a moment over the lines, and then read the verse, with so complete an imitation of Gracie Dennis, and yet with a voice and manner that so fitted the homely words and the homely scene described that the effect was actually better than when Gracie read.
Instinctively the cultured portion of his audience greeted the effort with a clapping of hands. The blood, meantime, rolled in dark waves over Dirk's face. He had been cheered before. None of his present applauders could imagine what a set had often clapped their hands over his successful imitations; but Dirk, who liked applause as well as other human beings do, had never, in his wildest stretches of imagination, placed himself before such people as listened now and received their approval.
Great was the excitement and satisfaction. The six companions, far from feeling any emotion of jealousy, seemed greatly elated, believing that one of their number had made a "hit," and increased their importance.
No one else could be found to attempt the verse. Nimble Dick shook his head good-naturedly, and declared that he would rather "undertake to run an engine to Californy" than try it; and the others were of like mind. Then came Gracie to the front again:—
"I'll tell you what you must all do. I have been experimenting with that type-writer, Mr. Roberts, all the week. You know it will manifold, with the use of carbon paper, and it chances that when I was seized with a desire to try its powers in that direction I choose this very verse to copy; so I have fifteen good copies in print. You must each take a copy and make this verse a study until next Monday; then I shall challenge you all to sustain me in my reading."
This proposition was hailed with such satisfaction by the older members that it immediately became popular, and each boy received his copy mechanically and gazed at it curiously: but Dirk Colson's thoughts were turned in a new channel.
"Look here!" he said, detaining Gracie by an imperious inclination of his head, as she handed him the copy; "how did you make these? didn't you print them fifteen times? I didn't understand what you said."
"Why no!" said Gracie, "the machine will manifold. I'll show you; come over to the end window; it stands there waiting to be displayed, and it is a little wonder."
Then they crowded around the type-writer, and Gracie, really proud of the skill she had acquired in a week's time, showed off the little wonder to great advantage.
The fact that the type-writer was new to most of the others, that they were decidedly ignorant as to its working, increased the comfort of the hour by doing away with the embarrassing feeling that any one of them was playing a part. Dr. Everett was no more familiar with the type-writer than was Dirk Colson, and was just as eager to know about it.