The woman, going about her work in the kitchen, looked out and saw her and nodded to her kindly—
The child's lips made a little smile in return. They were very pale.
"I come to take you home," said the voice. It was full of tenderness and Betty Harris bent her head, a great wave of homesickness sweeping across her.
"I can't go, Mr. Achilles." It was like a sob. "I can't go. They will kill you. I heard them. They will kill anybody—that comes—!" She spoke in swift little whispers—and waited. "Can you hear me say it?" she asked. "Can you hear me say it, Mr. Achilles?"
"I hear it—yes." The voice of Achilles laughed a little. "They will not kill—little lady, and you go home—with me—to-night." The voice dropped down from its high place and comforted her.
She reached out little hands to the chickens and laughed tremulously. "I am afraid," she said softly, "I am afraid!"
But the low voice, up in the dusk, steadied her and gave her swift commands—and repeated them—till she crept from the dim shed into the light and stood up—blinking a little—and looked about her—and laughed happily.
And the woman came to the door and smiled at her. "You must come in," she called.
"Yes—Mrs. Seabury—" The child darted back into the shed and gathered up the spoon and basin from the board and looked about her swiftly. In the slatted box, the mother hen clucked drowsily, and wise cheeps from beneath her wings answered bravely. The child glanced at the box, and up at the dusky boards of the shed, peering far in the dimness. But there was no one—not even a voice—just the high, tumbled pile of boards—and the few nests along the wall and the mother hen clucking cosily behind her slats—and the wise little cheeps.
"WAKE UP, MRS. SEABURY!"
The child lay with her hands clasped, breathing lightly. The sound of voices came drowsily from the kitchen... she must not go to sleep! She sat up and leaned toward the little window that looked out to the north. Through the blackness the stars twinkled mistily, and she put her foot carefully over the edge of the bed and slipped down. The window was open—as far as the small sash allowed—and a warm, faint breeze came across the plain to her. She leaned against the sill, looking out. It was not far to the ground.... But she could see only vague blackness down there, and she looked again up to the twinkling stars.... They were little points of light up there, and she looked up trustfully while the warm wind blew against her. Her heart was beating very hard—and fast—but she was not afraid.... Mr. Achilles had said—not to be afraid—and he was waiting—down there in the blackness to take her home. She crept back to bed and lay down—very still. In the room below there was a scraping of chairs and louder words—and footsteps.... Someone had opened the door under her window and the smell of tobacco came up. Her little nose disdained it—and listened, alert. Footsteps went out into the night and moved a little away on the gravel and came back, and the door closed. She could hear the bolt click to its place and the footsteps shuffle along the hall. The voices below had ceased and the house was still—she was very sleepy now. But he had said—Mr. Achilles had said.... She winked briskly and gave herself a little pinch under the clothes—and sat up. It was a sharp little pinch—through many thicknesses of clothes. Under the coarse nightgown buttoned carefully to the throat, she was still wearing the red and green plaids and all her day clothes. Only the clumsy shoes, slipped off, stood by the bed, waiting for her. Her hand reached down to them cautiously, and felt them—and she lay down and closed her eyes. There was a step on the stairs—coming slowly. Betty Harris grew very still. If Mrs. Seabury came in and stood and looked at her... she must cry out—and throw her arms around her neck—and tell her everything! She could not hurt Mrs. Seabury.... Mr. Achilles had said they would not hurt her. She had asked him that—three times, herself—and Mr. Achilles had said it—no one should hurt Mrs. Seabury—if Betty went away.... She held her breath.... The footsteps had come across the room—to her door—they waited there... then they moved on—and she drew a free breath. Her heart thumped to the vague movements that came and went in the next room—they pottered about a little, and finally ceased and a light, indrawn breath blew out the lamp—a hand was groping for the handle of her door—and opening it softly—and the bare feet moved away. The bed-springs in the next room creaked a little and everything was still. Betty Harris had a quick sense of pain. Mrs. Seabury was kind to her! She had been so kind that first day, when they brought her in out of the hot sun, and she had stumbled on the stairs and sobbed out—Mrs. Seabury had picked her up and carried her up the stairs and comforted her... and told her what it meant—these strange harsh men seizing her in the open sunshine, as they swept past—covering her mouth with hard hands and hurrying her out of the city to this stifling place. She loved Mrs. Seabury. Perhaps they would put her in prison... and never let her out—and Mollie would not get well. The child gave a little, quick sob, in her thought, and lay very still. Mollie had been good once, and wicked men had hurt her... and now her mother could not help her.... But Mr. Achilles said—yes—he said it—no one should hurt her.... And with the thought of the Greek she lay in the darkness, listening to the sounds of the night.... There was a long, light call somewhere across the plain, a train of heavy Pullmans pushing through the night—the sound came to the child like a whiff of breath, and passed away... and the crickets chirped—high and shrill. In the next room, the breathing grew loud, and louder, in long, even beats. Mrs. Seabury was asleep! Betty Harris sat up in bed, her little hands clinched fast at her side. Then she lay down again—and waited... and the breathing in the next room grew loud, and regular, and full.... Mrs. Seabury was very tired! And Betty Harris listened, and slipped down from the bed, and groped for her shoes—and lifted them like a breath—and stepped high across the floor, in the dim room. It was a slow flight... tuned to the long-drawn, falling breath of the sleeper—that did not break by a note—not even when the brown hand released the latch and a little, sharp click fell on the air.... "Wake up, Mrs. Seabury! Wake up—for Mollie's sake—wake up!" the latch said. But the sleeper did not stir—only the long, regular, dream-filled, droning sleep. And the child crept down the stair—across the kitchen and reached the other door. She was not afraid now—one more door! The men would not hear her—they were asleep—Mrs. Seabury was asleep—and her fingers turned the key softly and groped to the bolt above—and pushed at it—hard—and fell back—and groped for it again—and tugged... little beads of sweat were coming on the brown forehead. She drew the back of her hand swiftly across them and reached again to the bolt. It was too high—she could reach it—but not to push. She felt for a chair, in the darkness—and lifted it, without a sound, and carried it to the door and climbed up. There was a great lump in her throat now. Mr. Achilles did not know the bolt would stick like this—she gave a fierce, soft tug, like a sob—and it slid back. The knob turned and the door opened and she was in the night.... For a moment her eyes groped with the blackness. Then a long, quiet hand reached out to her—and closed upon her—and she gave a little sob, and was drawn swiftly into the night.
THE FLIGHT OF STARS
"Is that you, Mr. Achilles?" she asked—into the dark.
And the voice of Achilles laughed down to her. "I'm here—yes. It's me. We must hurry now—fast. Come!"
He gripped the small hand in his and they sped out of the driveway, toward the long road. Up above them the little stars blinked down, and the warm wind touched their faces as they went. The soft darkness shut them in. There was only the child, clinging to Achilles's great hand and hurrying through the night. Far in the distance, a dull, sullen glow lit the sky—the city's glow—and Betty's home, out there beneath it, in the dark. But the child did not know. She would not have known which way the city lay—but for Achilles's guiding hand. She clung fast to that—and they sped on.
By and by he ran a little, reaching down to her—and his spirit touched hers and she ran without fatigue beside him, with little breathless laughs—"I—like—to run!" she said.
"Yes—come—" He hurried her faster over the road—he would not spare her now. He held her life in his hand—and the little children—he saw them, asleep in their dreams, over there in the glow.... "Come!" he said. And they ran fast.
It was the first half hour he feared. If there was no pursuit, over the dark road behind them, then he would spare her—but not now. "Come!" he urged, and they flew faster.
And behind them the little house lay asleep—under its stars—no sign of life when his swift-flashing glance sought it out—and the heart of Achilles stretched to the miles and laughed with them and leaped out upon them, far ahead.... He should bring her home safe.
Then, upon the night, came a sound—faint-stirring wings—a long-drawn buzz and rush of air—deep notes that gripped the ground, far off—and the pulse of pounding wheels—behind them, along the dark road.... And Achilles seized the child by the shoulder, bearing her forward toward the short grass—his quick-running hand thrusting her down—"Lie still!" he whispered. The lights of the car had gleamed out, swaying a little in the distance, as he threw his coat across her and pressed it flat. "Lie still!" he whispered again, and was back in the road, his hand feeling for the great banana knife that rested in his shirt—his eye searching the road behind. There was time—yes—and he turned about and swung into the long, stretching pace that covers the miles—without hurry, without rest. The roar behind him grew, and flashed to light—and swept by—and his eye caught the face of the chauffeur, as it flew, leaning intently on the night; and in the lighted car behind him, flashed a face—a man's face, outlined against the glass, a high, white face fixed upon a printed page—some magnate, travelling at his ease, sleepless... thundering past in the night—unconscious of the Greek, plodding in the roadside dust.
Achilles knew that he had only to lift his hand—to cry out to them, as they sped, and they would turn with leaping wheel. There was not a man, hurrying about his own affairs, who would not gladly stop to gather up the child that was lost. Word had come to Philip Harris—east and west—endless offers of help. But the great car thundered by and Achilles's glance followed it, sweeping with it—on toward the city and the dull glow of sky. He was breathing hard as he went, and he plunged on a step—two steps—ten—before he held his pace; then he drew a deep, free breath, and faced about. The knife dropped back in his breast, and his hand sought the revolver in his hip pocket, crowding it down a little. He had been sure he could face them—two of them—three—as many as might be. But the car had swept on, bearing its strangers to the city... and the little house on the plain was still asleep. He had a kind of happy superstition that he was to save the child single-handed. He had not trusted the police... with their great, foolish fingers. They could not save his little girl. She had needed Achilles—and he had held the thread of silken cobweb—and traced it bit by bit to the place where they had hidden her. He should save her!
He glanced at the stars—an hour gone—and the long road to tramp. He ran swiftly to the child in the grass and lifted the coat and she leaped up, laughing—as if it were a game; and they swung out into the road again, walking with swift, even steps. "Are you tired?" asked Achilles. But she shook her head.
His hand in his pocket, in the darkness, had felt something and he pressed it toward her—"Eat that," he said, "you will be hungry."
She took it daintily, and felt of it, and turned it over. "What is it?" she asked. Then she set her small teeth in it—and laughed out. "It's chocolate," she exclaimed happily. She held it up, "Will you have a bite, Mr. Achilles?"
But Achilles had drawn out another bit of tin-foil and opened it. "I have yet more," he said, "—two—three—six piece. I put here in my pocket, every day—I carry chocolate—till I find you. Every day I say, 'she be hungry, maybe—then she like chocolate'—"
She nibbled it in happy little nibbles, as they walked. "I didn't eat any supper," she said. "I was too happy—and too afraid, I guess. That was a long time ago," she added, after a minute.
"A long time ago," said Achilles cheerfully. He had taken her hand again, and they trudged on under the stars.
"Nobody must hurt Mrs. Seabury!" said the child suddenly.
"I tell you that," said Achilles—he had half stopped on the road. "Nobody hurt that good lady—she, your friend."
"Yes, she is my friend. She was good to me.... She had a little girl once—like me—and some bad men hurt her.... I don't think they stole her—" She pondered it a minute—"I don't seem to understand—" she gave a little swift sigh. "But Mrs. Seabury is going to take her a long, long way off—and keep her always."
Achilles nodded. "We help her do that," he said. "They don't hurt that good lady."
His eyes were on the stars, and he lifted his face a little, breathing in the freshness. A swift star shot across the sky, falling to earth, and he pointed with eager finger. The child looked up and caught the falling flash, and they ran a little, as if to follow the leaping of their hearts. Then they went more slowly, and Achilles's long finger traced the heavens for her—the Greek gods up there in their swinging orbits... the warm, August night of the world. Betty Harris had never known the stars like this. Safe from her window, she had seen them twinkle out. But here they swept about her—and the plain reached wide—and close, in the darkness, a hand held her safe and the long finger of Achilles touched the stars and drew them down for her... Orion there, marching with his mighty belt—and Mars red-gleaming. The long, white plume of the milky way, trailing soft glory on the sky—and the great bear to the north. The names filled her ears with a mighty din, Calliope, Venus, Uranus, Mercury, Mars—and the shining hosts of heaven passed by. Far beyond them, mysterious other worlds gleamed and glimmered—without name. And the heart of the child reached to them—and travelled through the vast arches of space, with her dusty little feet on the wide plain, and a hand holding hers, safe and warm down there in the darkness. Her eyes dropped from the stars and she trudged on.
When Achilles spoke again, he was telling her of Alcibiades and Yaxis and of the long days of waiting and the happiness their coming would bring—and of her father and mother, asleep at Idlewood—and the great house on the lake, ready always, night and day, for her coming—
"Do they know—?" she asked quickly, "that we are coming?"
"Nobody knows," said Achilles, "except you and me."
She laughed out, under the stars, and stood still. "We shall surprise them!" she said.
"Yes—come!" They pressed on. Far ahead, foolish little stars had glimmered out—close to the ground—the fingers of the city, stretching toward the plain.
Her glance ran to them. "We're getting somewhere—?" she said swiftly. "We're getting home!" Her hand squeezed his, swinging it a little.
"Not yet—" said Achilles, "not yet—but we shall take the car there. You need not walk any more."
She was very quiet and he leaned toward her anxiously. "You are not tired?" he asked.
"No—Mr. Achilles—I don't think—I'm tired—" She held the words slowly. "I just thought we'd go on forever, walking like this—" She looked up and swept her small hand toward the stars. "I thought it was a dream—" she said softly—"Like the other dreams!" He felt a little, quick throb run through her, and he bent again and his fingers touched her cheek.
"I am not crying, Mr. Achilles," she said firmly, "I only just—" There was a little, choking sound and her face had buried itself in his sleeve.
And Achilles bent to her with tender gesture. Then he lifted his head and listened. There was another sound, on the plain, mingling with the sobs that swept across the child's frame.
He touched her quietly. "Someone is coming," he said.
She lifted her face, holding her breath with quick lip.
The sound creaked to them, and muffled itself, and spread across the plain, and came again in irregular rhythm that grew to the slow beat of hoofs coming upon the road.
Achilles listened back to the sound and waited a minute. Then he covered the child, as before, with his coat and turned back, walking along the road to meet the sound. It creaked toward him and loomed through the light of the stars—a great market wagon loaded with produce—the driver leaning forward on the seat with loose rein, half asleep. Suddenly he lifted his head and tightened rein, peering forward through the dark at the figure down there in the road. Achilles held his way.
"Hello!" said the man sharply.
Achilles paused and looked up—one hand resting lightly on his hip, turned a little back—the other thrust in his breast.
The man's eyes scanned him through the dimness. "Where you bound for?" he asked curtly.
"I walk," said Achilles.
"Want a job?" asked the man.
"You got job for me?" asked Achilles. His voice had all the guileless caution of the foreigner astray in a free land. The man moved along on the seat. "Jump up," he said.
Achilles looked back and forth along the road. "I think I go long," he said slowly.
The man gave an impatient sound in his throat and clicked to the horses. The heavy wagon creaked into motion, and caught its rhythm and rumbled on.
Achilles's ears followed it with deepest caution. The creaking mass of sound had passed the flat-spread coat without stop, and gathered itself away into a slow rumble, and passed on in the blurring dark.
Beyond it, the little, low lights still twinkled and the suburb waited with its trailing cars.
But when he lifted the coat she had fallen asleep, her face resting on her arm, and he bent to it tenderly, and listened.
AND CLANGING CARS
He looked up into the darkness and waited. He would let her sleep a minute... there was little danger now. The city waited, over there, with its low lights; and the friendly night shut them in. Before the morning dawned he should bring her home—safe home.... A kind of simple pride held him, and his heart leaped a little to the stars and sang with them—as he squatted in the low grass, keeping guard.
Presently he leaned and touched her.
She started with a shiver and sprang up, rubbing her eyes and crying out, "I—had—a—dream—" she said softly—"a beautiful dream!" Then her eyes caught the stars and blinked to them—through dusty sleep—and she turned to him with swift cry, "You're here!" she said. "It's not a dream! It's you!"
And Achilles laughed out. "We're going home," he said, "when you're rested a little."
"But I'm rested now!" she cried. "Come!" She sprang to her feet, and they journeyed again—through the night. About them, the plain breathed deep sleeping power—and the long road stretched from the west to the east and brought them home.
Each step, the city lights grew larger, and sparkled more, and spread apart farther, and a low rumble came creeping on the plain—jarring with swift jolts—the clang of cars and lifting life... and, in the distance, a line of light ran fire swiftly on the air, and darted, red and green, and trailed again in fire... and Achilles's finger pointed to it. "That fire will take us home," he said.
The child's eye followed the flashing cars—and she smiled out. The first light of the city's rim touched her face.
"Just a little farther!" said Achilles.
"But I am not tired!" said the child, and she ran a little, beside him, on the stone pavement, her small shoes clumping happily.
Achilles lifted a swift hand to a waiting car. The car clanged its gone—impatient. A big conductor reached down his hand to the child. The bell clanged again and they were off—"Clang-clang, clear the track! Betty Harris is going home—This is the people's carriage—Going home! Going home! Clear the track—clang-clang!" Through the blinking city streets they rode. Safe among the friendly houses, and the shops and the stores, and the people sleeping behind their blinds—all the people who had loved the child—and scanned the paper for her, every day—and asked, "Is Betty Harris found?"... Going home! Going home!... They would waken in the morning and read the news and shout across the way—"She's been found—yes—a Greek! He brought her home! Thank God. She's found!"
And little Betty Harris, leaning against the great shoulder beside her, nodded in the car, and dreamed little dreams and looked about her hazily.
The conductor came and stood in front of them with extended hand, and rang the fares, and cast an indifferent, kindly glance at the Greek and his child travelling by night.... He did not guess the "scoop" that his two little nickels rang out. The child with roughened hair and clumsy, hanging shoes, was nothing to him—nor to the policeman that boarded the car at the next corner and ran his eye down its empty length to the Greek, sitting erect—with the child sleeping beside him—her dark, tousled head against his arm.
The conductor came again, and touched Achilles on the shoulder and bent to him. "You change here," he said. He was pointing to a car across the square—"You take that," he said. "You understand?" He shouted a little—because the man was a foreigner—and dark—but his tone was friendly. And Achilles got to his feet, guiding the sleepy child down the rib-floored car that shook beneath them.... And the conductor and policeman watched the two figures vanish through the door—and smiled to each other—a friendly smile at foreign folks—who travel in strange ways—and go among us with eager, intent faces fixed on some shining goal we cannot see... with the patience of the centuries leaning down to them, and watching them.
THE TELEPHONE AGAIN
In the middle of the square, Achilles stopped—a lighted sign had caught his eye. He hurried the child across the blur of tracks to the sign, and opened a door softly. A sleepy exchange-girl looked up and waited while Achilles's dark fingers searched the page and turned to her—"Main—four-four-seven—"
She drawled sleepily after him—"Go in there—number four."
Achilles, with the child's hand in his, entered the booth and closed the door. Little noises clicked about them—queer meanings whispered—and waited—and moved off—the whole night-life of the great city stirred in the little cage.... "Go ahead—four!" called the girl lazily.
Achilles lifted the black tube. The child beside him pressed close, her eyes fixed on the tube. Achilles's words ran swift on the wire, and her eager face held them—other words came back—sharp—swift. And the child heard them crackle, and leap, and break and crackle again in the misty depths—and she touched Achilles's arm softly—"They must not hurt Mrs. Seabury—?" she said. "You tell them not to hurt Mrs. Seabury!"
Achilles's hand pressed her shoulder gently. "Yes—I tell—they know." It was a swift aside—and his voice had taken up the tale—"That woman—you not take that woman.... You hear? Yes—she good woman!"
"Tell them to look in the cellar!" said Betty. She had pressed closer, on tiptoe. "There is a hole there—under a barrel—and a barrel in the garden. You tell them—"
His eye dropped to her. "In cellar? You say that?"
"Yes—yes—" Her hands were clasped. "They took me there! You tell them!"
Achilles's eye smiled. "Hallo—you look in cellar!... What you say?—no—I don't see it. But you look in cellar—yes! They make tunnel—yes!" He hung up the receiver and took her hand. "Now we go home," he said.
They passed swiftly out, dropping payment—into a sleepy, unseeing palm—and crossing the square to the car that should carry them home. There were no delays now—only swift-running wheels... a few jolts and stops—and they were out again, beneath the stars, hurrying along the great breakwater of the lake—hurrying home.... The big, red-brown house thrust itself up—its gables reaching to thin blackness—and, suddenly, as they looked, it was touched lightly, as with a great finger, and the dawn glowed mistily up the walls.
They crossed swiftly and mounted the steps, between the lions, the child's feet stumbling a little as they went, but Achilles's hand held fast and his touch on the bell summoned hurrying feet... there was a fumbling at the chains—a swift, cautious creak, and the door swung back. "Who is it?" said a voice that peered out. The dawn touched his face grotesquely.
"It's me!" said the child. "It's Betty Harris, Conner."
The man's face fell back. Then he darted forward and glared at the child—through the mysterious, dawning light—on the dark, tender face and the little lip that trembled—looking up—"My God!" he said. He had darted from them.
The door was open wide and the two glided in silently, and stood in the emptiness. Achilles led the child to a great divan across the hall and placed her beside him—her little feet were crossed in the rough shoes and her hands hung listless.
Behind a velvet curtain, the butler's voice called frantic words—a telephone bell rang sharply and whirred and rang a long fierce call and the butler's voice took it up and flung it back—"Yes, sir. She's here! Yes, sir—that's what I said—she's a-settin' here, sir—on the sofa—with the furriner—yes, sir!" He put his head around the velvet curtain. "Will you speak to your father, Miss?"
His awe-struck hand held the receiver and he helped the strange, little figure to its seat in front of the 'phone. She put the tube to her lips. "Hallo, Daddy. Yes, it's Betty.... Mr. Achilles brought me, father.... Yes—yes—your little Betty—yes—and I'm all ri-i-ght...." The receiver dropped from her fingers. She had buried her face in her arms and was sobbing softly.
THE BIG BED
Achilles sprang forward. "She's all right, Mr. Harris—all right!" His hand dropped to the trembling shoulder and rested there, as his quiet voice repeated the words. He bent forward and lifted the child in his arms and moved away with her. But before he had traversed the long hall, the little head had fallen forward on his shoulder and the child slept. Behind the velvet curtain, the voice of Conner wrestled faintly with the telephone and all about them great lights glowed on the walls; they lighted the great staircase that swept mistily up, and the figure of Achilles mounting slowly in the stately, lonely house, the child in his arms. His hand steadied the sleeping head with careful touch, against his shoulder.... They were not jolting now, in heavy cars, through the traffic streets—or wandering on the plain.... Little Betty Harris had come home.
Above them at the top of the long stairs, a grey figure appeared, and paused a moment and looked down. Then Miss Stone descended swiftly, her hands outstretched—they did not touch the sleeping child, but hovered above her with a look—half pain—half joy.
Achilles smiled to her—"She come home," he whispered.
She turned with quick breath and they mounted the stairs—the child still asleep... through the long corridor—to the princess's room beyond—with its soft lights—and great, silken hangings and canopied bed, open for the night—waiting for Betty Harris.
Achilles bent and laid her down, with lightest touch, and straightened himself. "We let her sleep," he said gently. "She—very tired."
They stood looking down—at the brown face and the little, tired lip and sleeping lids.... Their eyes met, and they smiled.... They knew—these two, out of all the world—they knew what it meant—that the child was safe.
And out in the glowing dawn, the great car thundered home, and Betty Harris's mother looked out with swift eyes.
"See, Phil—the sun is up!" She reached out her hand.
"Sit still, Louie—don't tremble so—" he said gently. "She is safe now—They have brought her home. She's there, you know, asleep." He spoke slowly—as if to a child.... He was gathering up the morning in his heart—this big, harsh, master of men—his little girl was safe—and a common Greek—a man out of the streets—peddling bananas and calling up and down—had made his life worth living. His big, tense mind gripped the fact—and held it. Something seemed speaking to him—out of the east, over there, past the rushing car.... A common Greek.... He had flung his wealth and hammered hard—but somehow this man had loved her—his little girl!
"Phil—?" she said softly.
"Are we almost home?"
He looked out. "Half an hour yet—sit still, Louie—!" He held her hand close. "Sit still!" he said—and the miles slipped past.
"She is there—Phil! Yes? They wouldn't lie to me. All these weeks!" she said softly. "I don't think I could bear it much longer, Phil!" The tears were on her cheeks, raining down and he put his rough face against her, adrift in a new world.
And over the great lake the sun burst out, on a flashing car—and the door flung wide to Betty Harris's mother, flying with swift, sure foot up the great, stone steps.... "This way, ma'am—she's in here—her own room—this way, ma'am."
She was kneeling by the great canopied bed, her head bent very low. The brown face trembled a breath... the child put up a hand in her dream, "Mother-dear!" she said—and dreamed on....