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CALEB PLUMMER and his blind daughter lived alone in a little cracked nutshell of a house. They were toy-makers, and their house, which was so small that it might have been knocked to pieces with a hammer, and carried away in a cart, was stuck like a toadstool on to the premises of Messrs. Gruff & Tackleton, the toy merchants for whom they worked--the latter of whom was himself both Gruff and Tackleton in one.
I am saying that Caleb and his blind daughter lived here. I should say Caleb did, while his daughter lived in an enchanted palace, which her father's love had created for her. She did not know that the ceilings were cracked, the plaster tumbling down, and the woodwork rotten; that everything was old and ugly and poverty-stricken about her, and that her father was a gray-haired, stooping old man, and the master for whom they worked a hard and brutal taskmaster; oh, dear no, she fancied a pretty, cosy, compact little home full of tokens of a kind master's care, a smart, brisk, gallant-looking father, and a handsome and noble-looking toy merchant who was an angel of goodness.
This was all Caleb's doing. When his blind daughter was a baby he had determined, in his great love and pity for her, that her loss of sight should be turned into a blessing, and her life as happy as he could make it. And she was happy; everything about her she saw with her father's eyes, in the rainbow-colored light with which it was his care and pleasure to invest it.
Caleb and his daughter were at work together in their usual working-room, which served them for their ordinary living-room as well; and a strange place it was. There were houses in it, finished and unfinished, for dolls of all stations in life. Tenement houses for dolls of moderate means; kitchens and single apartments for dolls of the lower classes; capital town residences for dolls of high estate. Some of these establishments were already furnished with a view to the needs of dolls of little money; others could be fitted on the most expensive scale, at a moment's notice, from whole shelves of chairs and tables, sofas, bedsteads, and upholstery. The nobility and gentry and public in general, for whose use these doll-houses were planned, lay, here and there, in baskets, staring straight up at the ceiling; but in showing their degrees in society, and keeping them in their own stations (which is found to be exceedingly difficult in real life), the makers of these dolls had far improved on nature, for they, not resting on such marks as satin, cotton-print, and bits of rag, had made differences which allowed of no mistake. Thus, the doll-lady of high rank had wax limbs of perfect shape; but only she and those of her grade; the next grade in the social scale being made of leather; and the next coarse linen stuff. As to the common-people, they had just so many matches out of tinder-boxes for their arms and legs, and there they were--established in their place at once, beyond the possibility of getting out of it.
There were various other samples of his handicraft besides dolls in Caleb Plummer's room. There were Noah's Arks, in which the birds and beasts were an uncommonly tight fit, I assure you; though they could be crammed in, anyhow, at the roof, and rattled and shaken into the smallest compass. Most of these Noah's Arks had knockers on the doors; perhaps not exactly suitable to an Ark as suggestive of morning callers and a postman, yet a pleasant finish to the outside of the building. There were scores of melancholy little carts, which, when the wheels went round, performed most doleful music. Many small fiddles, drums, and other instruments of torture; no end of cannon, shields, swords, spears, and guns. There were little tumblers in red breeches, incessantly swarming up high obstacles of red-tape, and coming down, head first, upon the other side; and there were innumerable old gentlemen of respectable, even venerable, appearance, flying like crazy people over pegs, inserted, for the purpose, in their own street-doors. There were beasts of all sorts, horses, in particular, of every breed, from the spotted barrel on four pegs, with a small tippet for a mane, to the fine rocking horse on his highest mettle.
"You were out in the rain last night in your beautiful new overcoat," said Bertha.
"Yes, in my beautiful new overcoat," answered Caleb, glancing to where a roughly-made garment of sackcloth was hung up to dry.
"How glad I am you bought it, father."
"And of such a tailor! quite a fashionable tailor; a bright blue cloth, with bright buttons; it's a deal too good a coat for me."
"Too good!" cried the blind girl, stopping to laugh and clap her hands--"as if anything was too good for my handsome father, with his smiling face, and black hair, and his straight figure, as if any thing could be too good for my handsome father!"
"I'm half ashamed to wear it, though," said Caleb, watching the effect of what he said upon her brightening face; "upon my word. When I hear the boys and people say behind me: 'Halloa! Here's a swell!' I don't know which way to look. And when the beggar wouldn't go away last night; and, when I said I was a very common man, said 'No, your honor! Bless your honor, don't say that!' I was quite ashamed. I really felt as if I hadn't a right to wear it."
Happy blind girl! How merry she was in her joy!
"I see you, father," she said, clasping her hands, "as plainly as if I had the eyes I never want when you are with me. A blue coat!"----
"Bright blue," said Caleb.
"Yes, yes! Bright blue!" exclaimed the girl, turning up her radiant face; "the color I can just remember in the blessed sky! You told me it was blue before! A bright blue coat----"
"Made loose to the figure," suggested Caleb.
"Yes! loose to the figure!" cried the blind girl, laughing heartily; "and in it you, dear father, with your merry eye, your smiling face, your free step, and your dark hair; looking so young and handsome!"
"Halloa! Halloa!" said Caleb. "I shall be vain presently."
"I think you are already," cried the blind girl, pointing at him, in her glee. "I know you, father! Ha, ha, ha! I've found you out, you see!"
How different the picture in her mind from Caleb, as he sat observing her! She had spoken of his free step. She was right in that. For years and years he never once had crossed that threshold at his own slow pace, but with a footfall made ready for her ear, and never had he, when his heart was heaviest, forgotten the light tread that was to render hers so cheerful and courageous.
"There we are," said Caleb, falling back a pace or two to form the better judgment of his work; "as near the real thing as sixpen'orth of halfpence is to sixpence. What a pity that the whole front of the house opens at once! If there was only a staircase in it now, and regular doors to the rooms to go in at! but that's the worst of my calling. I'm always fooling myself, and cheating myself."
"You are speaking quite softly. You are not tired, father?"
"Tired," echoed Caleb, with a great burst in his manner, "what should tire me, Bertha? I was never tired. What does it mean?"
To give the greater force to his words, he stopped himself in an imitation of two small stretching and yawning figures on the mantel-shelf, who were shown as in one eternal state of weariness from the waist upwards; and hummed a bit of a song. It was a drinking song, something about a sparkling bowl; and he sang it with an air of a devil-may-care voice, that made his face a thousand times more meager and more thoughtful than ever.
"What! you're singing, are you?" said Tackleton, the toy-seller for whom he worked, putting his head in at the door. "Go it! I can't sing."
Nobody would have thought that Tackleton could sing. He hadn't what is generally termed a singing face, by any means.
"I can't afford to sing," said Tackleton. "I'm glad you can. I hope you can afford to work, too. Hardly time for both, I should think?"
"If you could only see him, Bertha, how he's winking at me!" whispered Caleb. "Such a man to joke! you'd think, if you didn't know him, he was in earnest, wouldn't you, now?"
The blind girl smiled and nodded.
"I am thanking you for the little tree, the beautiful little tree," replied Bertha, bringing forward a tiny rose-tree in blossom, which, by an innocent story, Caleb had made her believe was her master's gift, though he himself had gone without a meal or two to buy it.
"The bird that can sing and won't sing must be made to sing, they say," grumbled Tackleton. "What about the owl that can't sing, and oughtn't to sing, and will sing; is there anything that he should be made to do?"
"The extent to which he's winking at this moment!" whispered Caleb to his daughter. "Oh, my gracious!"
"Always merry and light-hearted with us!" cried the smiling Bertha.
"Oh! you're there, are you?" answered Tackleton. "Poor idiot!"
He really did believe she was an idiot; and he founded the belief, I can't say whether consciously or not, upon her being fond of him.
"Well! and being there--how are you?" said Tackleton, in his cross way.
"Oh! well; quite well. And as happy as even you can wish me to be. As happy as you would make the whole world, if you could!"
"Poor idiot!" muttered Tackleton. "No gleam of reason! Not a gleam!"
The blind girl took his hand and kissed it; held it for a moment in her own two hands; and laid her cheek against it tenderly, before releasing it. There was such unspeakable affection and such fervent gratitude in the act, that Tackleton himself was moved to say, in a milder growl than usual:
"What's the matter now?"
"Bertha!" said Tackleton, assuming, for once, a little cordiality. "Come here."
"Oh! I can come straight to you. You needn't guide me," she rejoined.
"Shall I tell you a secret, Bertha?"
"If you will!" she answered, eagerly.
How bright the darkened face! How adorned with light the listening head!
"This is the day on which little what's-her-name, the spoilt child, Peerybingle's wife, pays her regular visit to you--makes her ridiculous picnic here; ain't it?" said Tackleton, with a strong expression of distaste for the whole concern.
"Yes," replied Bertha. "This is the day."
"I thought so!" said Tackleton. "I should like to join the party."
"Do you hear that, father!" cried the blind girl in delight.
"Yes, yes, I hear it," murmured Caleb, with the fixed look of a sleep-walker "but I do not believe it. It's one of my lies, I've no doubt."
"You see I--I want to bring the Peerybingles a little more into company with May Fielding," said Tackleton. "I am going to be married to May."
"Married!" cried the blind girl, starting from him.
"She's such a confounded idiot," muttered Tackleton, "that I was afraid she'd never understand me. Yes, Bertha! Married! Church, parson, clerk, glass-coach, bells, breakfast, bride-cake, favors, marrow-bones, cleavers, and all the rest of the tomfoolery. A wedding, you know; a wedding. Don't you know what a wedding is?"
"I know," replied the blind girl, in a gentle tone. "I understand!"
"Do you?" muttered Tackleton. "It's more than I expected. Well, on that account I want you to join the party, and to bring May and her mother. I'll send a little something or other, before the afternoon. A cold leg of mutton, or some comfortable trifle of that sort. You'll expect me?"
"Yes," she answered.
She had drooped her head, and turned away; and so stood, with her hands crossed, musing.
"I don't think you will," muttered Tackleton, looking at her; "for you seem to have forgotten all about it already. Caleb!"
"I may venture to say, I'm here, I suppose," thought Caleb. "Sir!"
"Take care she don't forget what I've been saying to her."
"She never forgets," returned Caleb. "It's one of the few things she ain't clever in."
"Every man thinks his own geese swans," observed the toy merchant, with a shrug. "Poor devil!"
Having delivered himself of which remark with infinite contempt, old Gruff & Tackleton withdrew.
Bertha remained where he had left her, lost in meditation. The gaiety had vanished from her downcast face, and it was very sad. Three or four times she shook her head, as if bewailing some remembrance or some loss; but her sorrowful reflections found no vent in words.
"Father, I am lonely in the dark. I want my eyes; my patient, willing eyes."
"Here they are," said Caleb. "Always ready. They are more yours than mine, Bertha, any hour in the four-and-twenty. What shall your eyes do for you, dear?"
"Look round the room, father."
"All right," said Caleb. "No sooner said than done, Bertha."
"Tell me about it."
"It's much the same as usual," said Caleb. "Homely, but very snug. The gay colors on the walls; the bright flowers on the plates and dishes; the shining wood, where there are beams or panels; the general cheerfulness and neatness of the building, make it very pretty."
Cheerful and neat it was, wherever Bertha's hands could busy themselves. But nowhere else were cheerfulness and neatness possible, in the crazy shed which Caleb's fancy so transformed.
"You have your working dress on, and are not so gay as when you wear the handsome coat?" said Bertha, touching him.
"Not quite so gay," answered Caleb. "Pretty brisk though."
"Father," said the blind girl, drawing close to his side and stealing one arm round his neck, "tell me something about May. She is very fair."
"She is, indeed," said Caleb. And she was indeed. It was quite a rare thing to Caleb not to have to draw on his invention.
"Her hair is dark," said Bertha, pensively, "darker than mine. Her voice is sweet and musical I know. I have often loved to hear it. Her shape--"
"There's not a doll's in all the room to equal it," said Caleb. "And her eyes--"
He stopped; for Bertha had drawn closer round his neck; and, from the arm that clung about him, came a warning pressure which he understood too well.
He coughed a moment, hammered for a moment, and then fell back upon the song about the sparkling bowl; the song which helped him through all such difficulties.
"Our friend, father; the one who has helped us so many times, Mr. Tackleton. I am never tired you know, of hearing about him. Now was I, ever?" she said, hastily.
"Of course not," answered Caleb. "And with reason."
"Ah! with how much reason?" cried the blind girl, with such fervency that Caleb, though his motives were pure, could not endure to meet her face, but dropped his eyes, as if she could have read in them his innocent deceit.
"Then tell me again about him, dear father," said Bertha. "Many times again! His face is good, kind, and tender. Honest and true, I am sure it is. The manly heart that tries to cloak all favors with a show of roughness and unwillingness beats in its every look and glance."
"And makes it noble," added Caleb in his quiet desperation.
"And makes it noble!" cried the blind girl. "He is older than May, father?"
"Ye-es," said Caleb, reluctantly. "He's a little older than May, but that don't signify."
"Bertha," said Caleb softly, "what has happened? How changed you are, my darling, in a few hours--since this morning. You silent and dull all day! What is it? Tell me!"
"Oh father, father!" cried the blind girl, bursting into tears. "Oh, my hard, hard fate!"
Caleb drew his hand across his eyes before he answered her.
"But think how cheerful and how happy you have been, Bertha! How good, and how much loved, by many people."
"That strikes me to the heart, dear father! Always so mindful of me! Always so kind to me!"
Caleb was very much perplexed to understand her.
"To be--to be blind, Bertha, my poor dear," he faltered, "is a great affliction; but----"
"I have never felt it!" cried the blind girl. "I have never felt it in its fullness. Never! I have sometimes wished that I could see you, or could see him; only once, dear father; only for one little minute. But, father! Oh, my good, gentle father, bear with me, if I am wicked!" said the blind girl. "This is not the sorrow that so weighs me down!"
"Bertha, my dear!" said Caleb, "I have something on my mind I want to tell you, while we are alone. Hear me kindly! I have a confession to make to you, my darling."
"A confession, father?"
"I have wandered from the truth and lost myself, my child," said Caleb, with a pitiable look on his bewildered face. "I have wandered from the truth, intending to be kind to you; and have been cruel."
She turned her wonder-stricken face towards him, and repeated, "Cruel! He cruel to me!" cried Bertha, with a smile of incredulity.
"Not meaning it, my child," said Caleb. "But I have been; though I never suspected it till yesterday. My dear blind daughter, hear me and forgive me! The world you live in, heart of mine, doesn't exist as I have represented it. The eyes you have trusted in have been false to you."
She turned her wonder-stricken face towards him still.
"Your road in life was rough, my poor one," said Caleb, "and I meant to smooth it for you. I have altered objects, invented many things that never have been, to make you happier. I have had concealments from you, put deceptions on you, God forgive me! and surrounded you with fancies."
"But living people are not fancies?" she said hurriedly, and turning very pale, and still retiring from him. "You can't change them."
"I have done so, Bertha," pleaded Caleb. "There is one person that you know, my Dove--"
"Oh, father! why do you say I know?" she answered in a tone of keen reproach. "What and whom do I know! I, who have no leader! I, so miserably blind!"
In the anguish of her heart she stretched out her hands, as if she were groping her way; then spread them, in a manner most forlorn and sad, upon her face.
"The marriage that takes place to-day," said Caleb, "is with a stern, sordid, grinding man. A hard master to you and me, my dear, for many years. Ugly in his looks and in his nature. Cold and callous always. Unlike what I have painted him to you in everything, my child. In everything."
"Oh, why," cried the blind girl, tortured, as it seemed, almost beyond endurance, "why did you ever do this? Why did you ever fill my heart so full, and then come in, like death, and tear away the objects of my love? Oh, heaven, how blind I am! How helpless and alone!"
Her afflicted father hung his head, and offered no reply but in his grief.
"Tell me what my home is. What it truly is."
"It is a poor place, Bertha; very poor and bare indeed. The house will scarcely keep out wind and rain another winter. It is as roughly shielded from the weather, Bertha, as your poor father in his sackcloth coat."
"Those presents that I took such care of, that came almost at my wish, and were so dearly welcome to me," she said, trembling; "where did they come from?"
Caleb did not answer. She knew already, and was silent.
"I see, I understand," said Bertha, "and now I am looking at you, at my kind, loving compassionate father, tell me what is he like?"
"An old man, my child; thin, bent, gray-haired, worn-out with hard work and sorrow; a weak, foolish, deceitful old man."
The blind girl threw herself on her knees before him, and took his gray head in her arms. "It is my sight, it is my sight restored," she cried. "I have been blind, but now I see; I have never till now truly seen my father. Does he think that there is a gay, handsome father in this earth that I could love so dearly, cherish so devotedly, as this worn and gray-headed old man? Father there is not a gray hair on your head that shall be forgotten in my prayers and thanks to heaven."
"My Bertha!" sobbed Caleb, "and the brisk smart father in the blue coat--he's gone, my child."
"Dearest father, no, he's not gone, nothing is gone, everything I loved and believed in is here in this worn, old father of mine, and more--oh, so much more, too! I have been happy and contented, but I shall be happier and more contented still, now that I know what you are. I am not blind, father, any longer."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
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