Mrs. Harding braced herself and succumbed to habit. "That will be as your father says."
Junior turned toward his father, doubt in his eye, to receive a shock. There was not a trace of surprise or disapproval on the face of Peter.
"Now maybe that would be the best way in the world for you to help me out," he said. "You see me through planting and harvest and then I'll arrange to spare you, and you can see how you like it till fall. But you are too young to give up school and I don't agree to interrupting your education."
Mrs. Harding entered the car. "Now Mickey," she said as she distributed parcels, "you sit up there with Peter and show him the way, and we will go see if we want to undertake the care of your little girl for a week."
"Drop the anchor, furl the sail, right here," directed Mickey when they reached Sunrise Alley. "You know I told you dearest lady, about how scared my little girl is, having seen so few folks and not expecting you; so I'll have to ask you to wait a few minutes 'til I go up and get her used to your being here and then I'll have to sort of work her up to you one at a time. I 'spect you can't hardly believe that there's anything in all the world so small, and so white, that's lived to have the brains she has, and yet hasn't seen the streets of this city but for a short ride on a street- car twice in her life, and hasn't talked to half a dozen people. She may take you for a bear, Peter; you will be quiet and easy, won't you?"
"Why Mickey," said Peter, "why of course, son!"
Mickey bounded up the stairs and swung wide his door. Again the awful heat hit him in the face. He swallowed a mouthful, hastily shutting the door. "It's hard on Lily," was his mental comment, "but I guess I'll just save that for Mr. and Mrs. Peter. I think a few gulps of it will do them good; it will show them better than talking why, once she's out of it, she shouldn't come back 'til cold weather at least, if at all. Yes I guess!"
"Most baked honey?" he asked, taking her hot hands.
"Mickey, 'tain't near six," she panted.
"No it's two hours early," said Mickey. "But you know Flowersy-girl, I'm going to take care of you. It's getting too hot for you. Don't you remember what I told you last night?"
"'Bout laying on the grass an' the clover flowers?"
"Exactly yes!" said Mickey. "'Fore we melt let's roll up in this sheet and go, Lily! What do you say?"
"Has—has the red-berry folks come?" she cried.
"They're downstairs, Lily. They're waiting."
Peaches began climbing into his arms.
"Mickey, Mickey-lovest, hold me tight," she panted. "Mickey, I'm scairt just God-damned!"
"Wope! Wope lady! None of that!" cried Mickey aghast. "The place where you're going there's a nice little girl that never said such a word in all her life, and if she did her mammy would wash the badness out of her mouth with soap, just like I'll have to wash out yours, if you don't watch. You can't go in the big car, being held tight by me, else you promise cross your heart never, not never to say that again."
"Mickey, will soapin' take it out?" wailed Peaches.
"Well my mammy took it out of me that way!"
"Mickey get the soap, an' wash, an' scour it all out now, so's I can't ever. Mickey, quick before the nice lady comes that has flower fields, an' red berries, an' honey 'lasses. Mickey, hurry!"
"Oh you fool little sweet kid," he half laughed, half sobbed. "You fool little precious child-kid—I can't! There's a better way. I'll just put on a kiss so tight that no bad swearin's will ever pop out past it. There, like that! Now you won't ever say one 'fore the nice little girl, and when I want you not to so bad, will you?"
"Not never Mickey! Not never, never, never!"
"The folks can't wait any longer," said Mickey. "Here quick, I'll wash your face and comb you, and get a clean nightie on you, and your sweetest ribbon."
"Then it's pink," declared Peaches, "an' Mickey, make me a pretty girl, so's the nice lady will like me to drink her milk."
"Greedy!" said Mickey. "How can I make you pretty when the Lord didn't!"
"Ain't I pretty any at all?" queried Peaches.
"Mebby you would be if you'd fatten up a little," said Mickey judicially. "Can't anybody be pretty that's got bones sticking out all over them."
"Mickey, is the girl where we are going pretty?"
"I don't know," said Mickey. "I haven't seen her. She's a fine little girl, for she's at home taking care of her baby brother so's that her mammy can come and see if you are nice enough to go to her house and not spoil her children. See?"
Peaches nodded comprehendingly.
"Mickey, I won't again!" she insisted. "I said not never, never, never. Didn't you hear me?"
"Yes I heard you," said Mickey, applying the washcloth, slipping on a fresh nightdress, brushing curls, and tying the ribbon with fingers shaking with excitement and haste. "Yes I heard you, but that stuff seems to come awful easy, Miss. You got to be careful no end. Now, I'm going to bring them. You just smile at them, and when they ask you, tell them the right answer nice. Will you honey? Will you sure?"
"Surest thing you know," quoted Peaches promptly.
"Aw-w-w-ah!" groaned Mickey. "That ain't right! Miss Leslie wouldn't ever said that! You got that from me, too! I guess I better soap out my mouth 'fore I begin on you. 'Yes ma'am,' is the answer. Now you remember! I'll just bring in the lady first."
"I want to see Peter first!" announced Peaches.
"Well if I ever!" cried Mickey. "Peter is a great big man, 'bout twice as big as Mr. Bruce. You don't either! You want to see the nice lady first, 'cause it's up to her to say if she'll take care of you. She may get mad and not let you go at all, if you ask to see Peter first. You want to see the nice lady first, don't you Lily?"
"Yes, if I got to, to see the cow. But I don't!" said Lily. "I want to see Peter. I like Peter the best."
"Now you look here Miss Chicken, don't you start a tantrum!" cried Mickey. "If you don't see this nice lady first and be pretty to her, I'll just go down and tell them you like lying here roasting, and they can go back to their flower-fields and berries. See?"
Peaches drew a deep breath but her eyes were wilful. A wave of heat seemed to envelop them.
"Sweat it out right now!" ordered Mickey. "When people do things for you 'cause they are sorry for you, it's up to you to be polite, to pay back with manners at least. See?"
Peaches' smile was irresistible: "Mickey, I feel so p'lite! I'll see the nice lady first."
"Now there's a real, sure-enough lady!"
Mickey stooped to kiss Peaches again, take a last look at the hair ribbon, and straighten the sheet, then he ran; but he closed in the heat quickly as he slipped through the doorway. A few seconds later with the Harding family at his heels he again approached it. There he made his second speech. He addressed it to Peter and Junior.
"'Cause she's so little and so scared, I guess the nice lady better go in first, and make up with her. Then one at a time you can come, so so many strangers won't upset her."
Peter assented heartily, but with a suffocating gesture removed his coat, so Junior followed his example. Mickey cut short something about "extreme heat" on the lips of Mrs. Harding by indicating the door, and opening it. He quickly closed it after her, advancing to Peaches.
"Lily, this is the nice lady I was telling you of who has got the bird singing and the flower-fields——" he began. Peaches drew back, her eyes wide with wonder and excitement, but her mind followed Mickey's lead, for she shocked his sense of propriety by adding: "and the good red berries."
But Mrs. Harding came from an environment where to have "good red berries," spicy smoked ham, fat chickens and golden loaves constituted a first test of efficiency. To have her red berries appreciated did not offend her. If Peaches had said "the sweetest, biggest red berries in Noble Country," the woman would have been delighted, because that was her private opinion, but she was not so certain that corroboration was unpleasant. She advanced, gazing at the child unconsciously gasping the stifling air. She took one hurried glance at the room in its scrupulous bareness, with waves of heat pouring in the open window, and bent over Peaches.
"Won't you come out of this awful heat quickly, and let us carry you away to a cool, shady place? Dear little girl, don't you want to come?" she questioned.
"Is Mickey coming too?" asked Peaches.
"Of course Mickey is coming too!" said the lady.
"Will he hold me?"
"He will if you want him to," said Mrs. Harding, "but Peter is so much bigger, it wouldn't tire him a mite."
Mickey shifted on his feet and gazed at Peaches; as her eyes sought his, the message he telegraphed her was so plain that she caught it right.
"Mickey is just awful strong," she said. "I'll go if he'll hold me. But I want to see Peter! I like Peter!"
"Why you darling!" cried the nice lady.
"And I like Junior, that Mickey told me about, and your nice little girl that I mustn't ever say no sw——"
Mickey promptly applied the flat of his hand to the lips of the astonished child.
"And you like the little girl and the fat toddly baby——" he prompted.
"Yes," agreed Peaches enthusiastically, twisting away her head, "and I like the milk and the meat—gee, I like the meat, only Mickey wouldn't give me but a tiny speck 'til he asked the Sunshine Nurse Lady."
"You blessed child!" cried Nancy Harding. "Call Peter quickly!"
Mickey opened the door and signalled Peter and Junior.
"She likes you. She asked for you. You can both come at once," he announced, holding the door at a narrow crack until they reached it, both red faced, dripping, and fanning with their hats. Peter gasped for air.
"My God! Has any living child been cooped in this all day?" he roared. "Get her out! Get her out quick! Get her out first and talk afterward. This will give her scarlet fever!"
A shrill shout came from behind the intervening lady who arose and stepped back as Peaches raised to her elbow, and stretched a shaking hand toward Peter.
"Gee, Peter! You get your mouth soaped out first!" she cried. "Gee, Peter! I like you, Peter!"
Peter bent over her and then stooping to her level he explored her with astonished eyes, as he cried: "Why child, you ain't big enough for an exclamation point!" Peaches didn't know what an exclamation point was, but Mickey did. His laugh brought him again into her thought.
"Mickey, let's beat it! Take me quick!" she panted. "Take me first and talk afterward. Mickey, we just love these nice people, let's go drink their milk, and eat their red berries."
"Well Miss Chicken!" said Mickey turning a dull red.
The Harding family were laughing.
"All right, everybody move," said Peter. "What do you want to take with you Mickey?"
"That basket there," he said. "And that box, you take that Junior, and you take the Precious Child, and the slate and the books dearest lady—and I'll take my family; but I ain't so sure about this, lady. She's sweaty now, and riding is the coolingest thing you can do. We mustn't make her sick. She must be well wrapped."
"Why she couldn't take cold to-day——" began Peter.
"You and Junior shoulder your loads and go right down to the car," said Mrs. Harding. "Mickey and I will manage this. He is exactly right about it. To be taken from such heat to the conditions of motoring might——"
"Sure!" interposed Mickey, dreading the next word for the memories it would awaken in the child's heart. "Sure! You two go ahead! We'll come in no time!"
"But I'm not going to lug a basket and have a little chap carrying a child. You take this and I'll take the baby!"
Mickey's wireless went into instant action so Peaches promptly rebelled.
"I ain't no baby!" she said. "Miss Leslie Moonshine Lady sent me her hair ribbons and I 'spect she's been crying for them back every day; and my name what granny named me is Peaches, so there!"
"Corrected! Beg pardon!" said Peter. "Miss Peaches, may I have the honour of carrying you to the car?"
"Nope," said Peaches with finality. "Nobody, not nobody whatever, not the biggest, millyingairest nobody alive can't ever carry me, nelse Mickey says they can, and he is away off on the cars. I like you Peter! I just like you heaps; but I'm Mickey's, so I got to do what he says 'cause he makes me, jes like he ort, and nobody can't ever tend me like Mickey."
"So that's the ticket!" mused Peter.
"Yes, that's the ticket," repeated Peaches. "I ain't heavy. Mickey carried me up, down is easier."
"Sure!" said Mickey. "I take my own family. You take yours. We'll be there in a minute."
Peter and Junior disappeared with thankfulness and speed. Mrs. Harding and Mickey wrapped Peaches in the sheet and took along a comfort for shelter from the air stirred by motion. Steadying his arm, which he wished she would not, they descended. Did she think he wanted Peaches to suppose he couldn't carry her? He ran down the last flight to show her, frightening her into protest, and had the reward of a giggle against his neck and the tightening of small arms clinging to him. He settled in the car and wrapped Lily in the comfort until she had only a small peep of daylight.
Mickey knew from Peaches' laboured breathing and the grip of her hands how agitated she was; but as the car glided smoothly along, driven skilfully by mentality, guided by the controlling thought of a tiny lame back, she became easier and clutched less frantically. He kept the comfort over her head. She had enough to make the change, to see so many strangers all at once, without being excited by unfamiliar things that would bewilder and positively frighten her.
Mickey stoutly clung to a load that soon grew noticeably heavy; while over and over he repeated in his heart with fortifying intent: "She is my family, I'll take care of her. I'll let them keep her a while because it is too hot for her there, but they shan't boss her, and they got to know it first off, and they shan't take her from me, and they got to understand it."
Right at that point Mickey's grip tightened until the child in his arms shivered with delight of being so enfolded in her old and only security. She turned her head to work her face level with the comfort and whisper in glee: "Mickey, we are going just stylish like millyingaire folks, ain't we?"
"You just bet we are!" he whispered back.
"Mickey, you wouldn't let them 'get' me, would you?"
"Not on your life!" said Mickey, gripping her closer.
"And Peter wouldn't let them 'get' me?"
"No, Peter would just wipe them clear off the slate if they tried to get you," comforted Mickey. "We're in the country now Lily. Nobody will even think of you away out here."
"Mickey, I want to see the country!" said Peaches.
"No Miss! I'm scared now," replied Mickey. "It was awful hot there and it's lots cooler here, even slow and careful as Peter is driving. If you get all excitement, and rearing around, and take a chill, and your back gets worse, just when we have such a grand good chance to make it better— you duck and lay low, and if you're good, and going out doesn't make you sick, after supper when you rest up, maybe I'll let you have a little peepy yellow chicken in your hand to hold a minute, and maybe I'll let you see a cow. You'd give a good deal to see the cow that's going on your book, wouldn't you?"
Peaches snuggled down in pure content and proved her femininity as she did every day. "Yes. But when I see them, maybe I'll like a chicken better, and put it on."
"All right with me," agreed Mickey. "You just hold still so this doesn't make you sick, and to-morrow you can see things when you are all nice and rested."
"Mickey," she whispered.
Mickey bent and what he heard buried his face against Peaches' a second and when lifted it radiated a shining glory-light, for she had whispered: "Mickey, I'm going to always mind you and love you best of anybody."
Because she had expected the trip to result in the bringing home of the child, Mrs. Harding had made ready a low folding davenport in her first- floor bedroom, beside a window where grass, birds and trees were almost in touch, and where it would be convenient to watch and care for her visitor. There in the light, pretty room, Mickey gently laid Peaches down and said: "Now if you'll just give me time to get her rested and settled a little, you can see her a peep; but there ain't going to be much seeing or talking to-night. If she has such a lot she ain't used to and gets sick, it will be a bad thing for her, and all of us, so we better just go slow and easy."
"Right you are, young man," said Peter. "Come out of here you kids! Come to the back yard and play quietly. When Little White Butterfly gets rested and fed, we'll come one at a time and kiss her hand, and wish her pleasant dreams with us, and then we'll every one of us get down on our knees and ask God to help us take such good care of her that she will get well at our house."
Mickey suddenly turned his back on them and tried to swallow the lump in his throat. Then he arranged his family so it was not in a draft, sponged and fed it, and failed in the remainder of his promise, because it went to sleep with the last bite and lay in deep exhaustion. So Mickey smoothed the sheet, slipped off the ribbon, brushed back the curls, shaded the light, marshalled them in on tiptoe, and with anxious heart studied their compassionate faces.
Then he telephoned Douglas Bruce to ask permission to be away from the office the following day, and ventured as far from the house as he felt he dared with Junior; but so anxious was he that he kept in sight of the window. And so manly and tender was his scrupulous care, so tiny and delicate his small charge as she lay waxen, lightly breathing to show she really lived, that in the hearts of the Harding family grew a deep respect for Mickey, and such was their trust in him, that when he folded his comfort and stretched it on the floor beside the child, not even to each other did they think of uttering an objection. So Peaches spent her first night in the country breathing clover air, watched constantly by her staunch protector, and carried to the foot of the Throne on the lips of one entire family; for even Bobbie was told to add to his prayer: "God bless the little sick girl, and make her well at our house."
An Orphans' Home
"Margaret, I want a few words with you some time soon," said James Minturn to his sister.
"Why not right now?" she proposed. "I'm not busy and for days I've known you were in trouble. Tell me at once, and possibly I can help you."
"You would deserve my gratitude if you could," he said. "I've suffered until I'm reduced to the extremity that drives me to put into words the thing I have thrashed over in my heart day and night for weeks."
"Come to my room James," she said.
James Minturn followed his sister.
"Now go on and tell me, boy," she ordered. "Of course it's about Nellie."
"Yes it's about Nellie," he repeated. "Did you hear any part of what that very charming young lady had to say to me at our chosen playground, not long ago?"
"Yes I did," answered Mrs. Winslow. "But not enough to comprehend thoroughly. Did she convince you that you are mistaken?"
"No. But this she did do," said Mr. Minturn. "She battered the walls of what I had believed to be unalterable decision, until she made this opening: I must go into our affairs again. I have got to find out where my wife is, and what she is doing; and if the things Miss Leslie thinks are true. Margaret, I thought it was settled. I was happy, in a way; actually happy! No Biblical miracle ever seemed to me half so wonderful as the change in the boys."
"The difference in them is quite as much of a marvel as you think it," agreed Mrs. Winslow.
"It is greater than I would have thought possible in any circumstances," said Mr. Minturn. "Do they ever mention their mother to you?"
"Incidentally," she replied, "just as they do maids, footman or governess, in referring to their past life. They never ask for her, in the sense of wanting her, that I know of. Malcolm resembles her in appearance and any one could see that she liked him best. She always discriminated against James in his favour if any question between them were ever carried to her."
"Malcolm is like her in more than looks. He has her musical ability in a marked degree," said Mr. Minturn. "I have none, but Miss Winton suggested a thing to me that Mr. Tower has been able to work up some, and while both boys are deeply interested, it's Malcolm who is beginning to slip away alone and listen to and practise bird cries until he deceives the birds themselves. Yesterday he called a catbird to within a few feet of him, by reproducing the notes as uttered and inflected by the female."
"I know. It was a triumph! He told me about it."
"James is well named," said Mr. Minturn. "He is my boy. Already he's beginning to ask questions that are filled with intelligence, solicitude and interest about my business, what things mean, what I am doing, and why. He's going to make the man who will come into my office, who in a few more years will be offering his shoulder for part of my load. You can't understand what the change is from the old attitude of regarding me as worth no consideration; not even a gentleman, as my wife's servants were teaching my sons to think. Margaret, how am I going back even to the thought that I may be making a mistake? Wouldn't the unpardonable error be to again risk those boys an hour in the company and influence which brought them once to what they were?"
"You poor soul!" exclaimed Mrs. Winslow.
"Never mind that!" warned Mr. Minturn. "I'm not accustomed to it, and it doesn't help. Have you any faith in Nellie?"
"None whatever!" exclaimed Mrs. Winslow. "She's so selfish it's simply fiendish. I'd as soon bury you as to see you subject to her again."
"And I'd much sooner be buried, were it not that my heart is set on winning out with those boys," said Mr. Minturn. "There is material for fine men in them, but there is also depravity that would shock you inexpressibly, instilled by ignorant, malicious servants. I wish Leslie Winton had kept quiet."
"And so do I!" agreed Mrs. Winslow. "I could scarcely endure it, as I realized what was going on. While Nellie had you, there was no indignity, no public humiliation at which she stopped. For my own satisfaction I examined Elizabeth before she was laid away, and I held my tongue because I thought you didn't know. When did you find out?"
"A newsboy told me. He went with a woman who was in the park where it happened, to tell Nellie, but they were insulted for their pains. Some way my best friend Douglas Bruce picked him up and attached him, as I did William; it was at my suggestion. Of course I couldn't imagine that out of several thousand newsies Douglas would select the one who knew my secret and who daily blasts me with his scorn. If he runs into an elevator where I am, the whistle dies on his lips; his smile fades and he actually shrinks from my presence. You can't blame him. A man should be able to protect the children he fathers. What he said to me stunned me so, he thought me indifferent. In my place, would you stop him some day and explain?"
"I most certainly would," said Mrs. Winslow. "A child's scorn is withering, and you don't deserve it."
"I have often wondered what or how much he told Bruce," said Mr. Minturn.
"Could you detect any change in Mr. Bruce after the boy came into his office?" asked Mrs. Winslow.
"Only that he was kinder and friendlier than ever."
"That probably means that the boy told him and that Mr. Bruce understood and was sorry."
"No doubt," he said. "You'd talk to the boy then? Now what would you do about Nellie?"
"What was it Miss Winton thought you should do?"
"See Nellie! Take her back!" he exclaimed. "Give her further opportunity to exercise her brand of wifehood on me and motherhood on the boys!"
"James, if you do, I'll never forgive you!" cried his sister. "If you tear up this comfortable, healthful place, where you are the honoured head of your house, and put your boys back where you found them, I'll go home and stay there; and you can't blame me."
"Miss Winton didn't ask me to go back," he explained; "that couldn't be done. I saw and examined the deed of gift of the premises to the city. The only thing she could do would be to buy it back, and it's torn up inside, and will be in shape for opening any day now, I hear. The city needed a Children's Hospital; to get a place like that free, in so beautiful and convenient a location—and her old friends are furious at her for bringing sickness and crooked bodies among them. No doubt they would welcome her there, but they wouldn't welcome her anywhere else. She must have endowed it liberally, no hospital in the city has a staff of the strength announced for it."
"James, you are wandering!" she interrupted. "You started to tell me what Miss Winton asked of you."
"That I bring Nellie here," he explained. "That I make her mistress of this house. That I put myself and the boys in her hands again."
"Oh good Lord!" ejaculated Mrs. Winslow. "James, are you actually thinking of that? Mind, I don't care for myself. I have a home and all I want. But for you and those boys, are you really contemplating it?"
"No!" he said. "All I'm thinking of is whether it is my duty to hunt her up and once more convince myself that she is heartless vanity personified, and utterly indifferent to me personally, as I am to her."
"Suppose you do go to her and find that through pique, because you made the move for separation yourself, she wants to try it over, or to get the boys again—she's got a mint of money. Do you know just how much she has?"
"I do not, and I never did," he replied. "Her funds never in any part were in my hands. I felt capable of making all I needed myself, and I have. I earn as much as it is right I should have; but she'd scorn my plan for life and what satisfies me; and she'd think the boys disgraced, living as they are."
"James, was there an hour, even in your honeymoon, when Nellie forgot herself and was a lovable woman?"
"It is painful to recall, but yes! Yes indeed!" he answered. "Never did a man marry with higher hope!"
"Then what——?" marvelled Mrs. Winslow.
"Primarily, her mother, then her society friends, then the power of her money," he answered.
"Just how did it happen?" she queried.
"It began with Mrs. Blondon's violent opposition to children; when she knew a child was coming she practically moved in with us, and spent hours pitying her daughter, sending for a doctor at each inevitable consequence, keeping up an exciting rush of friends coming when the girl should have had quiet and rest, treating me with contempt, and daily holding me up as the monster responsible for all these things. The result was nervousness and discontent bred by such a course at such a time, until it amounted to actual pain, and lastly unlimited money with which to indulge every fancy.
"In such circumstances delivery became the horror they made of it, although several of the doctors told me privately not to have the slightest alarm; it was simply the method of rich selfish women to make such a bugbear of childbirth a wife might well be excused for refusing to endure it. Sifted to the bottom that was exactly what it was. I didn't know until the birth of James that they had neglected to follow the instructions of their doctors and made no preparation for nursing the child; as a result, when I insisted that it must be done, shrieks of pain, painful enough as I could see, resulted in a nervous chill for the mother, more inhumanity in me, and the boy was turned over to a hired woman with his first breath and to begin unnatural life. I watched the little chap all I could; he was strong and healthy, and while skilled nurses were available he upset every rule by thriving; which was one more count against me, and the lesson pointed out and driven home that no young wife could give a child such attention, so the baby was better off in the hands of the nurse. That he was reared without love, that his mother took not an iota of responsibility in his care, developed not a trait of motherhood, simply went on being a society belle, had nothing to do with it.
"He did so well, Nellie escaped so much better than many of her friends, that in time she seemed to forget it and didn't rebel at Malcolm's advent, or Elizabeth's, but by that time I had been practically ostracized from the nursery; governesses were empowered to flout and insult me; I scarcely saw my children, and what I did see made me furious, so I vetoed more orphans bearing my name, and gave up doing anything. Then came the tragedy of Elizabeth. Surely you understand 'just how' it was done Margaret?"
"Of course I had an idea, but I never before got just the perfect picture, and now I have it, though it's the last word I want to say to you, God made me so that I'm forced to say it, although it furnishes one more example of what is called inconsistency."
"Be careful what you say, Margaret!"
"I must say it," she replied. "I've encouraged you to talk in detail, because I wanted to be sure I was right in the position I was taking; but you've given me a different viewpoint. Why James, think it over yourself in the light of what you just have told me. Nellie never has been a mother at all! Her heart is more barren than that of a woman to whom motherhood is physical impossibility, yet whose heart aches with maternal instinct!"
"Margaret!" cried James Minturn.
"James, it's true!" she persisted. "I never have understood. For fear of that, I led you on and now look what you've told me. Nellie never had a chance at natural motherhood. The thing called society made a foolish mother to begin with, while she in turn ruined her daughter, and if Elizabeth had lived it would have been passed on to her. You throw a new light on Nellie. As long as she was herself, she was tender and loving, and you adored her; if you had been alone and moderately circumstanced, she would have continued being so lovable that after ten years your face flushes with painful memory as you speak of it. I've always thought her abandoned as to wifely and motherly instinct. What you say proves she was a lovable girl, ruined by society, through the medium of her mother and friends."
"If she cared for me as she said, she should have been enough of a woman——" began Mr. Minturn.
"Maybe she should, but you must take into consideration that she was not herself when the trouble began; she was, as are all women, even those most delighted over the prospect, in an unnatural condition, in so far that usual conditions were unusual, and probably made her ill, nervous, apprehensive, not herself at all."
"Do you mean to say that you are changing?"
"Worse than that!" she said emphatically. "I have positively and permanently changed. Even at your expense I will do Nellie justice. James, your grievance is not against your wife; it is against the mother who bore her, the society that moulded her."
"She should have been woman enough——" he began.
"Left alone, she was!" insisted Mrs. Winslow. "With the ills and apprehensions of motherhood upon her, she yielded as most young, inexperienced women would yield to what came under the guise of tender solicitude, and no doubt eased or banished pain, which all of us avoid when possible; and the pain connected with motherhood is a thing in awe of which the most practised physicians admit themselves almost stunned. The woman who would put aside pampering and stoically endure what money and friends could alleviate is rare. Jim, pain or no pain to you, you must find your wife and learn for yourself if she is heartless; or whether in some miraculous way some one has proved to her what you have made plain as possible to me. You must hunt her up, and if she is still under her mother's and society's influence, and refuses to change, let her remain. But—but if she has changed, as you have just seen me change, then you should give her another chance if she asks it."
"I can't!" he cried.
"You must! The evidence is in her favour."
"What do you mean?" he demanded impatiently.
"Her acquiescence in your right to take the boys and alter their method of life; her agreement that for their sakes you might do as you chose with no interference from her; both those are the acknowledgment of failure on her part and willingness for you to repair the damages if you can," she explained. "Her gift of a residence, the furnishings of which would have paid for the slight alterations necessary to transform a modern home into the most beautiful of modern hospitals, in a wonderfully lovely location, and leave enough to start it with as fine a staff as money can provide— that gift is a deliberately planned effort at reparation; the limiting of patients to children under ten is her heart trying to tell yours that she would atone."
"O Lord!" cried James Minturn.
"Yes I know," said Mrs. Winslow. "Call on Him! You need Him! There is no question but that He put into her head the idea of setting a home for the healing of little children, in the most exclusive residence district of Multiopolis, where women of millions are forced to see it every time they look from a window or step from their door. Have you seen it yourself, James?"
"Naturally I wouldn't haunt the location."
"I would, and I did!" said Mrs. Winslow. "A few days ago I went over it from basement to garret. You go and see it. And I recall now that her lawyer was there, with sheets of paper in his hand, talking with workmen. I think he's working for Nellie and that she is probably directing the changes and personally evolving a big, white, shining reparation."
"It's a late date to talk about reparation," he said.
"Which simply drives me to the truism, 'better late than never!' and to the addition of the comment that Nellie is only thirty and that but ten years of your lives have been wasted; if you hurry and save the remainder, you should have fifty apiece coming to you, if you breathe deep, sleep cool, and dine sensibly," said Mrs. Winslow.
She walked out of the room and closed the door. James Minturn sat thinking a long time, then called his car and drove to Atwater alone. He found Leslie in the orchard, a book of bird scores in her hands, and several sheets of music beside her. Her greeting was so cordial, so frankly sweet and womanly, he could scarcely endure it, because his head was filled with thoughts of his wife.
"You are still at your bird study?" he asked.
"Yes. It's the most fascinating thing," she said.
"I know," he conceded. "I want the titles of the books you're using. I mentioned it to Mr. Tower, our tutor, and he was interested instantly, and far more capable of going at it intelligently than I am, because he has some musical training. Ever since we talked it over he and the boys have been at work in a crude way; you might be amused at their results, but to me they are wonderful. They began hiding in bird haunts and listening, working on imitations of cries and calls, and reproducing what they heard, until in a few weeks' time—why I don't even know their repertoire, but they can call quail, larks, owls, orioles, whip-poor-wills, so perfectly they get answers. James will never do anything worth while in music, he's too much like me; but Malcolm is saving his money and working to buy a violin; he's going to read a music score faster than he will a book. I'm hunting an instructor for him who will start his education on the subjects which interest him most. Do you know any one Leslie?"
"No one who could do more than study with him. It's a branch that is just being taken up, but I have talked of it quite a bit with Mr. Dovesky, the harmony director of the Conservatory. If you go to him and make him understand what you want along every line, I think he'd take Malcolm as a special student. I'd love to help him as far as I've gone, but I'm only a beginner myself, and I've no such ability as it is very possible he may have."
"He has it," said Mr. Minturn conclusively. "He has his mother's fine ear and artistic perception. If she undertook it, what a success she could make!"
"I never saw her so interested in anything as she was that day at the tamarack swamp," said Leslie, "and her heart was full of other matters too; but she recognized the songs I took her to hear. She said she never had been so attracted by a new idea in her whole life."
"Leslie, I came to you this morning about Nellie. I promised you to think matters over, and I've done nothing else since I last saw you, hateful as has been the occupation. You're still sure of what you said about her then?"
"Positively!" cried Leslie.
"Do you hear from her?" he asked.
"No," she answered.
"You spoke of a letter——" he suggested.
"A note she wrote me before leaving," explained Leslie. "You see I'd been with her all day and we had raced home so joyously; and when things came out as they did, she knew I wouldn't understand."
"Might I see it?" he asked.
"Surely," said Leslie. "I spoke of that the other day. I'll bring it."
When Leslie returned James Minturn read the missive several times; then he handed it back, saying: "What is there in that Leslie, to prove your points?"
"Three things," said Leslie with conviction: "The statement that for an hour after she reached her decision she experienced real joy and expected to render the same to you; the acknowledgment that she understood that you didn't know what you were doing to her, in your reception of her; and the final admission that life now held so little for her that she would gladly end it, if she dared, without making what reparation she could. What more do you want?"
"You're very sure you are drawing the right deductions?" he asked.
"I wish you would sit down and let me tell you of that day," said Leslie.
"I have come to you for help," said James Minturn. "I would be more than glad, if you'd be so kind."
At the end: "I don't think I've missed a word," said Leslie. "That day is and always will be sharply outlined."
"You've not heard from her since that note?" he asked. "You don't know where she is?"
"No," said Leslie. "I haven't an idea where you could find her; but because of her lawyer superintending the hospital repairs, because of the wonderful way things are being done, Daddy thinks it's sure that the work is in John Haynes' hands, and that she is directing it through him."
"If it were not for the war, I would know," said Mr. Minturn. "But understanding her as I do——"
"I think instead of understanding her so well, you scarcely know her at all," said Leslie gently. "You may have had a few months of her real nature to begin with, but when her rearing and environment ruled her life, the real woman was either perverted or had small chance. Do you ever stop to think what kind of a man you might have been, if all your life you had been forced and influenced as Nellie was?"
"Good Lord!" cried Mr. Minturn.
"Exactly!" agreed Leslie. "That's what I'm telling you! She had got to the realization of the fact that her life had been husks and ashes; so she went to beg you to help her to a better way, and you failed her. I'm not saying it was your fault; I'm not saying I blame you; I'm merely stating facts."
"Margaret blames me!" said Mr. Minturn. "She thinks I'm enough at fault that I never can find happiness until I locate Nellie and learn whether she is with her mother and friends, or if she really meant what she said about changing, enough to go ahead and be different from principle."
"Her change was radical and permanent."
"I've got to know," said Mr. Minturn, "but I've no faith in her ability to change, and no desire to meet her if she has."
"Humph!" said Leslie. "That proves that you need some changing yourself."
"I certainly do," said James Minturn. "If I could have an operation on my brain which would remove that particular cell in which is stored the memory of the past ten years——"
"You will when you see her," said Leslie, "and she'll be your surgeon."
"Impossible!" he cried.
"Go find her," said Leslie. "You must to regain peace for yourself."
James Minturn returned a troubled man, but with viewpoint shifting so imperceptibly he did not realize what was happening. On his way he decided to visit the hospital, repugnant as the thought was to him. From afar he was amazed at sight of the building. He knew instantly that it must have been the leading topic of conversation among his friends purposely avoided in his presence. Marble pillars and decorations had been freshly cleaned, the building was snowdrift white; it shone through the branches of big trees surrounding it like a fairy palace. At the top of the steps leading to the entrance stood a marble group of heroic proportions that was wonderful. It was a seated figure of Christ, but cut with the face of a man of his station, occupation, and race, garbed in simple robe, and in his arms, at his knees, leaning against him, a group of children: the lean, sick and ailing, such as were carried to him for healing. Cut in the wall above it in large gold-filled letters was the admonition: "Suffer little children to come unto me."
That group was the work of a student and a thinker who could carry an idea to a logical conclusion, and then carve it from marble. The thought it gave James Minturn, arrested before it, was not the stereotyped idea of Christ, not the conventional reproduction of childhood. It impressed on Mr. Minturn's brain that the man of Galilee had lived in the form of other men of his day, and that such a face, filled with infinite compassion, was much stronger and more forceful than that of the mild feminine countenance he had been accustomed to associating with the Saviour.
He entered the door to find his former home filled with workmen, and the opening day almost at hand. Everywhere was sanitary whiteness. The reception hall was ready for guests, his library occupied by the matron; the dining-hall a storeroom, the second and third floors in separate wards, save the big ballroom, now whiter than ever, its touches of gold freshly gleaming, beautiful flowers in tubs, canaries singing in a brass house filling one end of the room, tiny chairs, cots, every conceivable form of comfort and amusement for convalescing little children. The pipe organ remained in place, music boxes and wonderful mechanical toys had been added, rugs that had been in the house were spread on the floor. No normal man could study and interpret the intention of that place unmoved. All over the building was the same beautiful whiteness, the same comfort, and thoughtful preparation for the purpose it was designed to fill. The operating rooms were perfect, the whole the result of loving thought, careful execution, and uncounted expense.
He came in time to the locked door of his wife's suite, and before he left the building he met her lawyer. He offered his hand and said heartily: "My sister told me of the wonderful work going on here; she advised me to come and see for myself. I am very glad I did. There's something bigger than the usual idea in this that keeps obtruding itself."
"I think that too," agreed John Haynes. "I've almost quit my practice to work out these plans."
"They are my wife's, by any chance?"
"All hers," said Mr. Haynes. "I only carry out her instructions as they come to me."
"Will you give me her address?" asked Mr. Minturn. "I should like to tell her how great I think this."
"I carry a packet for you that came with a bundle of plans this morning," said Mr. Haynes. "Perhaps her address is in it. If it isn't, I can't give it to you, because I haven't it myself. She's not in the city, all her instructions she sends some one, possibly at her mother's home, and they are delivered to me. I give my communications to the boy who brings her orders."
"Then I'll write my note and you give it to him."
"I'm sorry Minturn," said Mr. Haynes, "but I have my orders in the event you should wish to reach her through me."
"She doesn't wish to hear from me?"
"I'm sorry no end, Mr. Minturn, but——"
"Possibly this contains what I want to know," said Mr. Minturn. "Thank you, and I congratulate you on your work here. It is humane in the finest degree."
James Minturn went to his office and opened the packet. It was a complete accounting of every dollar his wife was worth, this divided exactly into thirds, one of which she kept, one she transferred to him, and the other she placed in his care for her sons to be equally divided between them at his discretion. He returned and found the lawyer had gone to his office. He followed and showed him the documents.
"What she places to my credit for our sons, that I will handle with the utmost care," he said. "What she puts at my personal disposal I do not accept. We are living comfortably, and as expensively as I desire to. There is no reason why I should take such a sum at her hands, even though she has more than I would have estimated. You will kindly return this deed of transfer to her, with my thanks, and a note I will enclose."
"Sorry Minturn, but as I told you before, I haven't her address. I'm working on a salary I should dislike to forfeit, and my orders are distinct concerning you."
"You could give me no idea where to find her?"
"Not the slightest!" said the lawyer.
"Will you take charge of these papers?" he questioned.
"I dare not," replied Mr. Haynes.
"Will you ask her if you may?" persisted Mr. Minturn.
"Sorry Minturn, but perhaps if you should see my instructions in the case, you'd understand better. I don't wish you to think me disobliging."
Mr. Minturn took the sheet and read the indicated paragraph written in his wife's clear hand:
Leslie Winton was very good to me my last day in Multiopolis. She was with me when I reached a decision concerning my future relations with Mr. Minturn, as I would have arranged them; and I am quite sure when she knows of our separation she will feel that it would not have occurred had James known of this decision of mine. It would have made no difference; but I am convinced Leslie will think it would, and that she will go to James about it. I doubt if it will change his attitude; but if by any possibility it should, and if in any event whatever he comes to you seeking my address, or me, I depend on you to in no way help him, if it should happen that you could. For this reason I am keeping it out of your power, unless I make some misstep that points to where I am. I don't wish to make any mystery of my location, or to disregard any intention that it is barely possible Leslie could bring Mr. Minturn to, concerning me. I merely wish to be left alone for a time; to work out my own expiation, if there be any; and to test my soul until I know for myself whether it is possible for a social leopard to change her spots. I have got to know absolutely that I am beyond question a woman fit to be a wife and mother, before I again trust myself in any relation of life toward any one.
Mr. Minturn returned the sheet, his face deeply thoughtful. "I see her point," he said. "I will deposit the papers in a safety vault until she comes, and in accordance with this, I shall make no effort to find her. My wife feels that she must work out her own salvation, and I am beginning to realize that a thorough self-investigation and revelation will not hurt me. Thank you. Good morning."
A Particular Nix
Peaches awakened early the following morning, but Mickey was watching beside her to help her remember, to prompt, to soothe, to comfort and to teach. He followed Mrs. Harding to the kitchen and from the prepared food selected what he thought came closest filling the diet prescribed by the Sunshine Nurse, and then he carried the tray to a fresh, cool Peaches beside a window opening on a grassy, tree-covered lawn. Her room was bewildering on account of its many, and to the child, magnificent furnishings. She found herself stretching, twisting and filled with a wild desire to walk, to see the house, the little girl and the real baby, the lawn beyond her window, the flower-field, the red berries where they grew, and the birds and animals from which came the most amazing sounds.
After doing everything for Peaches he could, Mickey went to his breakfast. Mary Harding and Bobbie were so anxious to see the visitor they could scarcely eat. Knowing it was no use to try forcing them, their mother excused them and they ventured as far as the door. There they stopped, gazing at the little stranger, while she stared back at them; but she was not frightened, because she knew who they were and that they would be good to her, else Mickey would not let them come. So when Mary, holding little brother's hand, came peeping around the door-casing, Peaches withdrew her attention from exploration of the strip of lawn in her range and concentrated on them. If they had come bounding at her, she would have been frightened, but they did not. They stood still, half afraid, watching the tiny white creature, till suddenly she smiled at them and held out her hand.
"I like you," she said. "Did you have red berries for breakfus?"
Mary nodded and smiled back.
"I think you're a pretty little girl," said Peaches.
"I ain't half as pretty as you," said Mary.
"No a-course you ain't," she admitted. "Your family don't put your ribbon on you 'til night, do they? Mickey put mine on this morning 'cause I have to look nice and be jus' as good, else I have to be took back to the hot room. Do you have to be nice too?"
"Yes, I have to be a good girl," said Mary.
"What does your family do to you if you don't mind?"
"I ain't going to tell, but it makes me," said Mary. "What does yours do to you?"
"I ain't going to tell either," said Peaches, "but I get jus' as good! What's your name?"
"Bobbie. Mostly we call him little brother. Ain't he sweet?" asked Mary.
"Jus' a Precious Child! Let him mark on my slate."
Mickey hurried to the room. As he neared the door he stepped softly and peeped inside. It was a problem with him as to how far Mary and Bobbie could be trusted. Having been with Peaches every day he could not accurately mark improvements, but he could see that her bones did not protrude so far, that her skin was not the yellow, glisteny horror it had been, that the calloused spots were going under the steady rubbing of nightly oil massage, so lately he had added the same treatment to her feet; if they were not less bony, if the skin were not soft and taking on a pinkish colour, Mickey felt that his eyes were unreliable.
Surely she was better! Of course she was better! She had to be! She ate more, she sat up longer, she moved her feet where first they had hung helpless. She was better, much better, and for that especial reason, now was the time to watch closer than before. Now he must make sure that a big strong child did not drag her from the bed, and forever undo all he had gained. Since he had written Dr. Carrel, Mickey had rubbed in desperation, not only nights but mornings also, lest he had asked help before he was ready for it; for the Sunshine Lady had said explicitly that the sick back could not be operated until the child was stronger. He was working according to instructions.
Mickey watched. Any one could have seen the delicate flush on Peaches' cheek that morning, the hint of red on her lips, the clearing whites of her lovely eyes. She was helping Bobbie as Mickey had taught her. And Bobbie approved mightily. He lifted his face, put up his arms and issued his command: "Take Bobbie!"
"No! No, Bobbie," cautioned Mary. "Mother said no! You must stay on the floor! Sister will take you. You mustn't touch Peaches 'til God makes her well. You asked Him last night, don't you know? Mother will spank something awful if you touch her. You must be careful 'til her back is well, mother said so, and father too; father said it crosser than mother, don't you remember?"
"Mustn't touch!" repeated Bobbie, drawing back.
Mickey was satisfied with Mrs. Harding's instructions, but he took the opportunity to emphasize a few points himself. He even slipped one white, bony foot from under the sheet and showed Mary how sick it was, and how carefully it must be rubbed before it would walk.
"I can rub it," announced Mary.
"Well don't you try that," cautioned Mickey.
"Why go on and let her!" interposed Peaches. "Go on and let her! After today you said you'd be gone all day, an' if rubbing in the morning and evening is good, maybe more would make me walk sooner. Mickey I ain't ever said it, 'cause you do so much an' try so hard, but Mickey, I'm just about dead to walk! Mickey, I'm so tired being lifted. Mickey, I want to get up an' go when I want to, like other folks!"
"Well that's the first time you ever said that."
"Well 'tain't the first time I ever could a-said it, if I'd a-wanted to," explained Peaches.
"I see! You game little kid, you," said Mickey. "All right Mary, you ask your mother and if she says so, I'll show you how, and maybe you can rub Lily's feet, if you go slow and easy and don't jar her back a speck."
"Ma said I could a-ready," explained Mary. "Ma said for me to! She said all of us would, all the time we had while you were away, so she'd get better faster. Ma said she'd give a hundred dollars if Peaches would get so she could walk here."
Mickey sat back on his heels suddenly.
"Who'd she say that to?" he demanded.
"Pa. And he said he'd give five hundred."
"Aw-a-ah!" marvelled Mickey.
"He did too!" insisted Mary. "This morning 'fore you came out. And Junior would too. He'd give all in his bank! And he'd rub too! He said he would."
"Well, if you ain't the nicest folks!" cried Mickey. "Gee, I'm glad I found you!"
"Jus' as glad!" chimed in Peaches.
"Mary bring Robert here!" called Mrs. Harding from the hall. Mary obeyed. Mickey moved up and looked intently at Peaches.
"Well Lily," he asked, "what do you think of this?"
"I wouldn't trade this for Heaven!" she answered.
"The country is all the Heaven a-body needs, in June."
"Mickey, bring in the cow now!" ordered Peaches.
"Bring in the cow?" queried Mickey.
"Sure, the little red cow in the book that makes the milk. I want you to milk her right here on my bed!"
"Well, if I ever!" gasped Mickey. "Sure, I'll bring her in a minute; but a cow is big, Lily! Awful, great big. I couldn't bring her in here; but maybe I can drive her where you can see, or I don't know what would be the harm in taking you where the cows are. But first, one thing! Now you look right at me, Miss Chicken. There's something I got to know if you got in your head straight. Who found you, and kept them from 'getting' you?"
"Mickey-lovest," replied Peaches promptly.
"Then who d'you belong to?" he demanded.
"Mickey!" she answered instantly.
"Who you got to do as I say?" he continued.
"Mickey," she repeated.
"Whose family are you?" he pursued.
"Mickey's!" she cried. "Mickey, what's the matter? Mickey, I love you best. I'm all yours. Mickey, I'll go back an' never say a word 'bout the hotness, or the longness, or anything, if you don't want me here."
"Well I do want you here," said Mickey in slow insistent tone. "I want you right here! But you got to understand a few things. You're mine. I'm going to keep you; you got to understand that."
"Yes Mickey," conceded Peaches.
"And if it will help you to be rubbed more than I can rub you while I got to earn money to pay for our supper when we go home, and fix your back, and save for the seminary, I'll let the nice pleasant lady rub you; and I'll let a good girl like Mary rub you, and if his hands ain't so big they hurt, maybe I'll let Peter rub you; he takes care of Bobbie, maybe he could you, and he's got a family of his own, so he knows how it feels; but it's nix on anybody else, Miss Chicken, see?"
"They ain't nobody else!" said Peaches.
"There is too!" contradicted Mickey. "Mary said Junior would rub your feet! Well he won't! It's nix on Junior! He's only a boy! He ain't got a family. He hasn't had experience. He doesn't know anything about families! See?"
"He carries Bobbie, an' I bet he's heavier 'an me."
For the first time Mickey lost his temper.
"Now you looky here, Miss Chicken," he stormed. "I ain't saying what he can do, I'm saying what he can't! See? You are mine, and I'm going to keep you! He can lift me for all I care, but he can't carry you, nor rub your feet, nor nothing; because he didn't find you, and you ain't his; and I won't have it, not at all! Course he's a good boy, and he's a nice boy, and you can play with him, and talk to him, I'll let you just be awful nice to him, because it's polite that you should be, but when it comes to carrying and rubbing, it's nix on Junior, because he's got no family and doesn't understand. See?"
"Umhuh," taunted Peaches.
"Well, are you going to promise?" demanded Mickey.
"Maybe," she teased.
"Back you go and never see a cow at all if you don't promise," threatened Mickey.
"Mickey, what's the matter with you?" cried Peaches suddenly. "What you getting a tantrum yourself for? You ain't never had none before."
"That ain't no sign I ain't just busting full of them," said Mickey. "Bad ones, and I feel an awful one as can be coming right now, and coming quick. Are you going to promise me nobody who hasn't a family, carries you, and rubs you?"
Peaches looked at him in steady wonderment.
"I guess you're pretty tired, an' you need to sleep a while, or somepin," she said. "If you wasn't about sick yourself, you'd know 'at anybody 'cept you 'ull get their dam-gone heads ripped off if they touches me, nelse you say so. Course, you found me! Course, they'd a-got me, if you hadn't took me. Course, I'm yours! Course, it's nix on Junior, an' it's nix on Peter if you say so. Mickey, I jus' love you an' love you. I'll go back now if you say so, I tell you. Mickey what's the matter?"
She stretched up her arms, and Mickey sank into them. He buried his face beside hers and for the first time she patted him, and whispered to him as she did to her doll. She rubbed her cheek against his, crooned over him, and held him tight while he gulped down big sobs.
"Mickey, tell me," she begged, like a little mother. "Tell me honey? Are you got a pain anywhere?"
"No!" he said. "Maybe I was kind of strung up, getting you here and being so awful scared about hurting you; but it's all right now. You are here, and things are going to be fine, only, will you, cross your heart, always and forever remember this: it's nix on Junior, or any boy, who ain't got a family, and doesn't understand?"
"Yes Mickey, cross my heart, an' f'rever, an' ever; an' Mickey, you must get the soap. I slipped, an' said the worse yet. I didn't mean to, but Mickey, I guess you can't trust me. I guess you got to soap me, or beat me, or somepin awful. Go on an' do it, Mickey."
"Why crazy!" said Mickey. "You're mixed up. You didn't say anything! What you said was all rightest ever; rightest of anything I ever heard. It was just exactly what I wanted you to say. I just loved what you said."
"Well if I ever!" cried Peaches. "Mickey, you was so mixed up you didn't hear me. I got 'nother chance. Goody, goody! Now show me the cow!"
"All right!" said Mickey. "I'll talk with Mrs. Harding and see how she thinks I best go at it. Lily, you won't ever, ever forget that particular nix, will you?"
"Not ever," she promised, and lifted her lips to seal the pact with a kiss that meant more to Mickey than all that had preceded it.
"Just how do you feel, anyway, Flowersy-girl?"
"Fine!" said Peaches. "I can tell by how it is right now, that it isn't going to get all smothery an' sweatin's here; whoohoo it's so good, Mickey!"
Mickey bent over her holding both hands and whispered: "Then just you keep right before your eyes where you came from, Miss, and what you must go back to, if you don't behave. You will be a good girl, won't you?"
"Honest, Mickey-lovest, jus' as good."
"Well how goes it with the Little White Butterfly?" asked Peter at the door.
Mickey looked at Peaches to slightly nod encouragement, then he slipped from the room. She gave Peter a smile of wonderment and answered readily: "Grand as queen-lady. You're jus' so nice and fine."
Now Peter hadn't known it, but all his life he had been big; handled rough tools, tasks, implements and animals; while his body grew sinewy and hard, to cope with his task, his heart demanded more refined things; so if Peaches had known the most musical languages on earth, she could not have used words to Peter that would have served her better. He radiated content.
"Good!" he cried. "That's grand and good! I didn't take a fair look at you last night. It was so sissing hot in that place and you went to sleep before I got my chores done; but now we must get acquainted. Tell me honey, does any particular place in your little body hurt you? If there does, put your hand and show Peter where."
Peaches stared at Peter, then she faintly smiled at him and laid a fluttering hand on her left side.
"Oh shockings!" mourned Peter. "That's too bad! That's vital! Your heart's right under there, honey. Is there a pain in your heart?"
Peaches nodded solemnly.
"Not all the time!" she explained. "Only like now, when you are so good to me. Jus' so fine and good."
Then and there Peter surrendered. He bent and kissed the hand he held, and said with tears saturating his words, just as tears do permeate speech sometimes: "Pshaw now, Little White Butterfly! I never was more pleased to hear anything in my life. Ma and I have talked for years of having some city children here for summer, but we've been slow trying it because we hear such bad reports from many of them, and it's natural for people to shield their own; but I guess instead of shielding, we may have been denying. I can't see anything about you children to hurt ours; and I notice a number of ways where it is beneficial to have you here. It's surely good for all of us. You're the nicest little folks!"
Peaches sat up suddenly and smiled on Peter.
"Mickey is nice an' fine," she told him. "Not even you, or anybody, is nice as Mickey. An' I'm going to be. I'd like to be! But you see, I laid alone all day in a dark corner so long, an' I got so wild like, 'at when granny did come, I done an' said jus' like she did, but Mickey doesn't like it. He's scairt 'most stiff fear I'll forget an' say bad swearin's, an' you'll send me back to the hotness, so's I won't get better. Would you send me back if I forget just once, Peter?"
"Why pshaw now!" said Peter. "Pshaw Little Soul, don't you worry about that. You try hard to remember, and be like Mickey wants you to, and if you make a slip, I'll speak to Ma about it, and we'll just turn a deaf ear, and away out here, you'll soon forget it."
Just then, Mickey, trailing a rope, passed before the window; there was a crunching sound; a lumbering cow stopped, lifted a mouth half filled with grass, and bawled her loudest protest at being separated from her calf. Peaches had only half a glance, but her shriek was utter terror. She launched herself on Peter and climbed him, until her knees were on his chest, and her fingers clutching his hair.
"God Jesus!" she screamed. "It 'ull eat me!"
Peter caught her in his arms, turning his back. Mickey heard, and saw, and realized that the cow was too big and had appeared too precipitately, and bellowed too loudly. He should have begun on the smallest calf on the place. He rushed the cow back to Junior, and himself to Peaches, who, sobbing wildly, still clung to Peter. As Mickey entered, frightened and despairing, he saw that Peter was much concerned, but laughing until his shoulders shook, and in relief that he was, and that none of the children were present, Mickey grinned, acquired a slow red, and tried to quiet Peaches.
"Shut that window!" she screamed. "Shut it quick!"
"Why honey, that's the cow you wanted to see," soothed Mickey. "That's the nice cow that gave the very milk you had for breakfast. Junior was going to milk her where you could see. We thought you'd like it!"
"Don't let it get me!" cried Peaches.
"Why it ain't going to get anything but grass!" said Mickey. "Didn't you see me leading it? I can make that big old thing go where I please. Come on, be a game kid now. You ain't a baby coward girl! It's only a cow! You are going to put it on your book!"
"I ain't!" sobbed Peaches. "I ain't ever going to drink milk again! I jus' bet the milk will get me!"
"Be game now!" urged Mickey. "Mary milks the cow. Baby Bobbie runs right up to her. Everything out here is big, Lily. I ran from the horses. I jumped on a fence, and Junior laughed at me."
"Mickey, what did you say?" wavered Peaches.
"I didn't say anything," said Mickey. "I just jumped."
"Mickey, I jumped, an' I said it, both. I said it right on Peter," she bravely confessed. "Mickey, I said the worst yet! I didn't know I did, 'til I heard it! But Mickey, I got another chance!"
Peaches wiped her eyes, tremulously glanced at the window, and still clinging to Mickey explained: "I was just telling Peter about the swearin's, an' Mickey, don't feel so bad. He won't send me back for just once. Mickey, Peter has got 'a deaf ear.' He said he had! He ain't goin' to hear it when I slip a swearin's, an' Mickey, I am tryin'! Honest I'm tryin' jus' as hard, Mickey!"
Mickey turned a despairing face toward Peter.
"Just like she says," assured Peter. "We've all got our faults. You'll have to forgive her Mickey."
"Me? Of course!" conceded Mickey. "But what about you? You don't want your nice little children to hear bad words."
"Well," said Peter, "don't make too much of it! It's likely there are no words she can say that my children don't know. Just ignore and forget it! She won't do it often. I'm sure she won't!"
"Are you sure you won't, Miss?" demanded Mickey.
"Sure!" said Peaches, and in an effort to change the subject: "Mickey, is that cow out there yet?"
"No. Junior took her back to the barnyard."
"Mickey, I ain't going to put a cow on my book; but I want to see her again, away off. Mickey, take me where I can see. You said last night you would."
"But the horses are bigger than the cows. You'll get scared again, and with scaring and crying you'll be so bad off your back won't get any better all day, and to-morrow I got to leave you and go to work."
"Then I'll see all the things to-day, an' to-morrow I'll think about them 'til you come back. Please Mickey! If things don't get Bobbie an' Mary, they won't get me!"
"That's a game little girl!" said Mickey. "All right, I'll take you. But you ought to have——"
"Have what Mickey?" she inquired, instantly alert.
"Well never you mind what," said Mickey. "You be a good girl and lie still, so your back will be better, and watch the bundle I'll bring home to-morrow night."
Peaches shivered in delight. Mickey proceeded slowly, followed by the entire family.
"Mickey, it's so big!" she marvelled. "Everything is so far away, an' so big!"
"Now isn't it!" agreed Mickey. "You see it's like I told you. Now let me show you the garden."
He selected that as a safe proposition. Peaches grasped the idea readily enough. Mrs. Harding gathered vegetables for her to see. When they reached the strawberry bed Mickey knelt and with her own fingers Peaches pulled a berry and ate it, then laughed, exclaimed, and cried in delight. She picked a flower, and from the safe vantage of the garden viewed the cows and horses afar; and the fields and sheep were explained to her. Mickey carried her across the road, Mary brought a comfort, and for a whole hour the child lay under a big tree with pink and white clover in a foot-deep border around her. When they lifted her she said: "Mickey, to-night we put in the biggest blesses of all."
"What?" inquired Mickey.
"Bless the nice people for such grand things, an' the berries; but never mind about the cow."
Then Mickey took her back to the house. She awoke from a restful nap to find a basket of chickens waiting for her, barely down dry from their shells. She caught up a little yellow ball, and with both hands clutched it, exclaiming and crying in joy until Mickey saw the chicken was drooping. He pried open her excited little fingers; but the chicken remained limp. Soon it became evident that she had squeezed the life from it.
"Oh Peaches, you held it too tight!" wailed Mickey. "I'm afraid you've made it sick!"
"I didn't mean to Mickey!" she protested.
Mrs. Harding reached over and picked the chicken from Mickey's fingers.
"That chicken wasn't very well to begin with," she said. "'You give it to me, and I'll doctor it up, while you take another one. Which do you want?"
"Yellow," sniffed Peaches, "but please hurry, and Mickey, you hold this one. Maybe I held too hard!"
"Yes you did," laughed Peter. "But we wanted to see what you'd do. One little chicken is a small price for the show you give. It's all right, Butterfly."
"Peter, you make everything all right, don't you?"
"Well honey, I would if I could," said Peter. "But that's something of a contract. Now you rest till after dinner, and if Ma and Mickey agree on it, we'll go see the meadow brook and hear the birds sing."
"The water!" shouted Peaches. "Mickey, you promised——"
"Yes I remember," said Mickey. "I'll see how cold it is and if I think it won't chill you—yes."
"Oh gee!" chortled Peaches. "'Nother blesses!"
"What does she mean?" asked Peter.
"Can't see how it would hurt her a mite," said Peter. "Water is warm, nice day. It will be good for her."
"All right," said Mickey, "then we'll try it. But how about the plowing Peter, shouldn't I be helping you?"
"Not to-day," said Peter. "I never allow my work to drive me, so I get pleasure from life my neighbours miss, and I'll compare bank accounts with any of them. To-morrow I'll work. To-day I'm entertaining company, or rather they are entertaining me. I think this is about the best day of my life. Isn't it great, Ma?"
"It just is! I can't half work, myself!" answered Nancy Harding. "I just wonder if we could take a little run in the car after supper?"
"What do you think about it, Mickey?" asked Peter.
"Why, I can't see that coming out hurt her any."
"Then we'll go," said Peter.
"Do I have to be all covered?" questioned Peaches.
"Not nearly so much," explained Mickey. "I'll let you see a lot more. There's a bobolink bird down the street Peter wants to show you."
"'Street!'" jeered Junior. "That's a road!"
"Sure!" said Mickey. "I got a lot to learn. You tell me, will you Junior?"
"Course!" said Junior, suddenly changing from scorn to patronage. "Now let's take her to the creek!"
"Well that's quite a walk," said Peter. "We're not going there unless I carry the Little White Butterfly. You want me to take you, don't you?"
Peaches answered instantly.
"Mickey always carries me. He can! And of course I like him the best; but after him, I like you best Peter, so you may, if he'll let you."
"So that's the way the wind blows!" laughed Peter. "Then Mickey, it's up to you."
"Why sure!" said Mickey. "Since you are so big, and got a family of your own, so you understand——"
"What Mickey?" asked Peter.
"Oh how to be easy with little sick people," answered Mickey, "and that a man's family is his family, and he don't want anybody else butting in!"
"I see!" said Peter, struggling with his facial muscles. "Of course! But this sheet is going to be rather bunglesome. Ma, could you do anything about it?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Harding. "Mary, you run up to the flannel chest, and get Bobbie's little blue blanket."
Peter lifted the child to his broad breast, she slipped her arms around his neck, and laid her head on his shoulder.
Bloom time was past, but bird time was not, while the leaves were still freshly green and tender. Some of them reached to touch Peaches' gold hair in passing. She was held high to see into nests and the bluebirds' hollow in the apple tree. Peaches gripped Peter and cried: "Don't let it get my feet!" when the old turkey gobbler came rasping, strutting, and spitting at the party. Mickey pointed to Mary, who was unafraid, and Peaches' clutch grew less frantic but she defended: "Well, I don't care! I bet if she hadn't ever seen one before, an' then a big thing like that would come right at her, tellin' plain it was goin' to eat her alive, it would scare the livers out of her."
"Yes I guess it would," conceded Peter. "But you got the eating end of it wrong. It isn't going to eat us, we are going to eat it. About Thanksgiving, we'll lay its head on the block and Ma will stuff it——"
"I've quit stuffing turkeys, Peter," said Mrs. Harding. "I find it spoils the flavour of the meat."
"Well then it will stuff us," said Peter, "all we can hold, and mince pie, plum pudding, and every good thing we can think of. What piece of turkey do you like best, Butterfly?"
Mickey instantly scanned Peter, then Mrs. Peter, and tensely waited.
"Oh stop! Stop! Is that a turkey bird?" cried Peaches.
"Surely it is," said Mrs. Harding. "Why childie, haven't you ever seen a turkey, either?"
"No I didn't ever," said Peaches. "Can turkey birds sing?"
Just then the gobbler stuck forward his head and sang: "Gehobble, hobble, hobble!" Peaches gripped Peter's hair and started to ascend him again. Mrs. Harding waved her apron; the turkey suddenly reduced its size three- fourths, skipped aside, and a neat, trim bird, high stepping and dainty, walked through the orchard. Peaches collapsed in Peter's arms in open- mouthed wonder. "Gosh! How did it cave in like that?" she cried.
Peter's shoulders were shaking, but he answered gravely: "Well that's a way it has of puffing itself up and making a great big pretense that it is going to flop us, and then if just little Bobbie or Ma waves an apron or a stick it gets out of the way in a hurry."
"I've seen Multiopolis millyingaires cave in like that sometimes when I waved a morning paper with an inch-high headline about them," commented Mickey.
Peter Harding glanced at his wife, then they laughed together. Peter stepped over a snake fence, went carefully down a hill, crossed the meadow to the shade of a tree, sat on the bank of the brook and watched Peaches as she studied first the clear babbling water, then the grass trailing in the stream, the bushes, trees, and then the water again.
"Mickey, come here!" she commanded. "Put your head right down beside mine. Now look just the way I do, an' tell me what you see."
"I see running water, grassy banks, trees, the birds, the sky and the clouds—the water shows what's above it like a mirror, Lily."
Peaches pointed. Mickey watched intently.
"Sure!" he cried. "Little fish with red speckles on them. Shall I catch you one to see?"
"'Tain't my eyes then?" questioned Peaches.
"Your eyes, Miss?" asked Mickey bewildered.
"'Tain't my eyes seein' things that yours doesn't?"
Mickey took her hand and drew closer.
"Well, it isn't any wonder you almost doubt it, honey," he said. "I would too, if I hadn't ever seen it before. But I been on the trolley, and on a few newsboys' excursions, and in the car with Mr. Bruce, and I've got to walk along the str—roads some, so I know it's real. Let me show you——!"
Mickey slipped down the bank, scooped his hands full of water, and lifted them, letting it drip through his fingers. Then he made a sweep and brought up one of the fish, brightly marked as a flower, and gasping in the air.
"Look quick!" he cried. "See it good! It's used to water and the air chokes it, just like the water would you if a big fish would take you and hold your head under; I got to put it back quick."
"Mickey, lay it in my hand, just a little bit!"
Mickey obeyed while Peaches examined it hurriedly.
"Put it back!" she cried. "I guess that's as long as I'd want to be choked, while a fish looked at me."
Mickey exchanged the fish for a handful of wet, vividly coloured pebbles, then brought a bunch of cowslips yellow as gold, and a long willow whip with leaves on, and when she had examined these, she looked inquiringly at Mrs. Harding.
"Nicest lady, may I put my feet in your water?"
"How about the temperature of it, Mickey?" inquired Mrs. Harding.
"It's all right," said Mickey. "I've washed her in colder water lots of times. The Sunshine Lady said I should, to toughen her up."
"Then go ahead," said Mrs. Harding.
"Peter, may I?" asked Peaches.
"Surely!" agreed Peter. "Whole bunch may get in if Ma says so!"
"Well, I don't say so!" exclaimed Mrs. Harding. "The children have their good clothes on and they always get to romping and dirty themselves and then it's bigger washings and mine are enough to break my back right now."
Peter looked at his wife intently. "Why Nancy, I hadn't heard you complain before!" he said. "If they're too big, we must wear less and make them smaller, and I'll take an hour at the machine, and Junior can turn the wringer. All of you children listen to me. Your Ma is feeling the size of the wash. That means we must be more careful of our clothes and help her better. If Ma gets sick, or tired of us, we'll be in a fix, I tell you!"
"I didn't say I was sick, or tired of you, I'm just tired of washing!" said Mrs. Harding.
"I see!" said Peter. "But it is a thing that has got to be done, like plowing and sowing."
"Yes I know," said Mrs. Harding, "but plowing and sowing only come once a year. Washing comes once and twice a week."
"Let me," said Mickey. "I always helped mother, and I do my own and Lily's at home. Of course I will here, and I can help you a lot with yours!"
"Yes a boy!" scoffed Mrs. Harding.
"Well I'll show you that a boy can work as well as a girl, if he's been taught right," said Mickey.
"I wasn't bringing up any question of work," said Mrs. Harding. "I just didn't want the children to dirty a round of clothing apiece. They may wade when their things are ready for the wash anyway. Go on Peaches!"
Peter moved down the bank and prepared to lower her to the water, but she reached her arms for Mickey.
"He promised me," she said. "Back there on his nice bed in the hot room he promised me this."
"So I did," said Mickey, radiating satisfaction he could not conceal. "So I did! Now, I'll let you put your feet in, like I said."
"Will the fish bite me?" she questioned timidly.
"Those little things! What if they did?"
Thus encouraged she put her toes in the water, gripping Mickey and waiting breathlessly to see what happened. Nothing happened, while the warm, running water felt pleasant, so she dipped lower, and then did her best to make it splash. It wasn't much of a splash, but it was a satisfying performance to the parties most interested, and from their eagerness the watchers understood what it meant to them. Junior sidled up to his mother.
"Ain't that tough?" he whispered.
She bit her lip and silently nodded.
"Look at her feet, will you?" he breathed.
She looked at him instead, then suddenly her eyes filled with a mist like that clouding his.
"Think they'll ever walk?" he questioned.
"I don't know," she said softly, "but it looks as if God has given us the chance to make them if it's possible."
"Well say what's my share?" he said.
"Just anything you see that you think will help."
"If I be more careful not to dirty so many clothes, will it help?" he asked.
"It would leave me that much more time and strength to give to her," she said.
"Will all I can save you in any way be helping her that much?" he persisted.
"Surely!" she said. "Soon as he's out of sight, I'm going to begin on her. But don't let them hear!"
Junior nodded. He sat down on the bank watching as if fascinated the feet trying to splash in the water. Mickey could feel the effort of the small body.
"You take her now," he said to Peter. Then he threw off his shoes and stockings, turned up his knee breeches and stepped into the water, where he helped the feet to kick and splash. He rubbed them and at last picked up handfuls of fine sand and lightly massaged with it until he brought a pink glow.
"That's the stuff," indorsed Peter. "Look at that! You're pulling the blood down."
"Where's the blood?" asked Peaches.
Peter explained the circulatory system and why all the years of lying, with no movement, had made her so helpless. He told her why scarce and wrong food had not made good blood to push down and strengthen her feet so they would walk. He told her the friction of the sand-rubbing would pull it down, while the sun, water, and earth would help. Peaches with wide eyes listened, her breath coming faster and faster, until suddenly she leaned forward and cried: "Rub, Mickey! Rub 'til the blood flies! Rub 'em hot as hell!"
"Well, Miss Chicken!" he cried in despair.
Peaches buried her shamed face on Peter's breast. He screened her with a big hand.
"Now never you mind! Never you mind!" he repeated. "Everybody turn a deaf ear! That was a slip! Nobody heard it! You mean Little Butterfly White, 'rub hard.' Say rub hard and that will fix it!"
"Mickey," she said in a faint voice so subdued and contrite as to be ridiculous, "Mickey-lovest, won't you please to rub hard! Rub jus' as hard!"
Mickey suddenly bent to kiss the bony little foot he was chafing.
"Yes darling, I'll rub 'til it a-most bleeds," he said.
When the feet were glowing with alternate sand-rubbing and splashing in cold water, Peter looked at his wife.
"I think that's the ticket!" he said. "Nancy, don't you? That pulls down the blood with rubbing, and drives it back with cold water, and pulls it down, to be pushed back again—ain't that helping the heart get in its work? Now if we strengthen her with right food, and make lots of pure blood to run in these little blue canals on her temples, and hands and feet, ain't we gaining ground? Ain't we making headway?"
"We've just got to be," said Mrs. Harding. "There's no other way to figure it. But this is enough for a start."
Peaches leaned toward her and asked: "May we do this again to-morrow, nicest lady?"
"Well I can't say as we can come clear here every day; I'm a busy woman, and my spare time is scarce; and even light as you are, you'd be a load for me; I can't say as we can do this when Peter is busy plowing and harvesting and Junior is away on the cream wagon, and Mickey is in town at his work; we can't do just this; but there is something we can do that will help the feet quite as much. We can bring a bucket of sand up to the house, and set a tub of water in the sun, and you can lie on a comfort under an apple tree with Mary and Bobbie to watch you, and every few hours we can take a little time off for rubbing and splashing."
"My job!" shouted Junior. "I get a bucket and carry up the sand!"
"I bring the tub and pump the water!" cried Mary.
"Me shoo turkey!" announced Bobbie.
"I lift the tub to the edge of the shade and carry out the Butterfly!" said Peter.
"And where do I come in?" demanded Mickey.
"Why Mickey, you 'let' them!" cried Peaches. "You 'let' them! An' you earn the money to pay for the new back, when I get strong enough to have it changed, an' the Carrel man comes! Don't you 'member?"
"Sure!" boasted Mickey, taking on height. "I got the biggest job of all! I got the job that really does the trick, and to-morrow I get right after it. Now I must take you back to the house to rest a while."
"Aw come on to the barn with me!" begged Junior. "Let father carry her! Ain't you going to be any company for me at all?"
"Sure!" said Mickey. "Wait a minute! I'd like to go to the barn with you."
He dried Peaches' feet with his handkerchief, stuffed his stockings in his pocket, and picked up his shoes.
"Lily, can you let Peter take you back to rest 'til supper time, so I can see what Junior wants to show me?"
"Yes I can," said Peaches. "Yes I can, 'cause I'm a game kid; but I don't wish to!"
"Now you look here, Miss Chicken, that hasn't got anything to do with it," explained Mickey. "Every single time you can't have your way, 'cause it ain't good for you. If all these nice folks are so kind to you, you must think part of the time about what they want, and just now Junior wants me, so you march right along nice and careful with Peter, and pretty soon I'll come."
Peaches pouted a second, then her face cleared by degrees, until it lifted to Peter with a smile.
"Peter, will you please to carry me while Mickey does what Junior wants?" she asked with melting sweetness.
"Sure!" said Peter. "I'm the one to take you anyway, big and strong as an ox; but that's a pretty way to ask, and acting like a nice lady!"
Peaches radiated pride while Peter returned her to the couch, brought her a glass of milk and a cracker, pulled the shade, and going out softly closed the door. In five minutes she was asleep.
An hour before supper time Mickey appeared and without a word began watching Mrs. Harding. Suddenly her work lightened. When she was ready for water, the bucket was filled, saving her a trip to the pump. When she lifted the dishpan and started toward the back door, Mickey met her with the potato basket. When she glanced questioningly at the stove, he put in more wood. He went to the dining-room and set the table exactly as it had been for dinner. He made the trip to the cellar with her and brought up bread and milk, while she carried butter and preserves. As she told Peter that night, no strange woman ever had helped her as quickly and understandingly.
With dishwashing he was on hand, for he knew that Peaches' fate hung on how much additional work was made for Mrs. Harding. That surprised woman found herself seated in a cool place on the back porch preparing things for breakfast, while Mickey washed the dishes, and Mary carried them. Peaches was moved to the couch in the dining-room where she could look on.