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"Come," cried Belle impatiently, as they made their way down Sixth Avenue, which was crowded at that hour; "why do you walk so slowly? If my mother was as badly off as you say yours is, I'd fly to her."
"No, you wouldn't, if you had scarcely eaten anything for two days."
"What!" Belle exclaimed, stopping short and looking at her companion to see if she were in earnest. Something in her expression caused the impulsive child to seize her hand and drag her into a bakery near. Then snatching out her little purse she thrust it into the girl's hands and said, "Here, take all I have and buy what you like best."
But instead of buying anything, the stranger looked wistfully into the excited and deeply sympathetic face, and said slowly, "I don't believe you're bad after all."
"Oh, I'm bad enough--bad as most girls of my age," said the innocent girl recklessly, "but I'm not bad enough to keep back a penny if I knew any one was hungry. Stop looking at me and buy what you like, or else let me do it. Take home some of this jelly-cake to your mother. That would tempt my appetite if it ever needed any tempting. I half believe you are shamming all this, you act so queer."
"Come with me," said the girl, for the people in the store were looking at them curiously. When in the street she continued, "You are not bad. What is your name?"
"My name is Clara Bute. I am hungry. I'm faint for food, but may it choke me if I eat any before I take something home to mother! Cake is not what either of us need, although it made me ravenous to see it. You haven't much money here, Belle, and small as the sum is, I don't know when I can repay it."
"Oh, stop that kind of talk," cried Belle; "you'll drive me wild. Let us get what your mother does want and take it to her without another word."
They purchased bread and milk, a little tea, a bit of beef, a bundle of kindling-wood, and then Belle's slender funds gave out. With these they turned into a side street and soon reached a tall tenement.
"Oh," sighed Clara, "how can I climb those dreadful stairs! We live at the top."
"Drink some of the milk," said Belle kindly, "and then let me carry everything."
"I guess I'll have to or I'll never get up at all." Slowly and painfully she mounted flight after flight, sitting down at last and resting after each ascent. "I didn't--realize--I was so weak," she panted.
"Tell me your room," said Belle, "and I'll come back and help you."
"It's the--last one--back--top floor. I've given out."
Belle left her sitting on the stairs and soon reached the door, which had been left slightly ajar for air, for the evening was sultry. She pushed it open with her foot, since her hands were so full, and with her eyes fixed on the articles she was carrying so as to drop nothing, she crossed the small room to a table and put them down before looking around.
"There's some--mistake," said a very low, hollow voice.
Belle was almost transfixed by eyes as black as her own, gleaming out of cavernous sockets and from the most emaciated face she had ever seen. It seemed as if the dead were speaking to her. At any rate, if the woman were not dead she soon would be, and the thought flashed through Belle's mind that she would be the cause of her death, since she had taken her daughter's place and robbed them of sustenance. She who had been ready to face a whole shopful of hostile people with undaunted eyes was seized with a remorseful panic, and ran sobbing down to Clara, crying, "Oh, do come--let me carry you"; and this she half did in her excitement. "Give your mother something to make her better right away. Let me help you--tell me what to do."
Clara went to her mother and kissed her tenderly, whispering, "Courage, momsy, I've got something nice for you." Then she turned and said, "You are too excited, Belle. I'll do everything, and make the little we have go a great way. You would waste things. I know just what to do, only give me time," and she soaked some of the bread in the milk and began feeding her mother, who swallowed with great difficulty.
"I'll take no more--till--I see you--eat something," gasped the poor woman. "Who gave you all this? Who's that?" pointing feebly at Belle.
"I'm the girl that took Clara's place," Belle began, with a fresh burst of sobs. "I didn't know I was doing it, and now I'll never forgive myself."
Clara looked at her wonderingly as she explained: "The foreman said you asked Mr. Schriven to make a place for you, but I don't believe you meant that he should 'sack' me to do it. Why, you are nothing but a great, warm-hearted child. The girls said you were 'knowing,' and could 'play as deep a game as the next one,' and that the foreman about the same as owned it to them. It's all his doing and his master's. They both care more for a yard of ribbon than for a girl, body and soul."
"Well," said Belle, with bitter emphasis, "I'll never work for them again--never, never."
"Don't say that," resumed Clara, after coaxing her mother to take a little more nourishment, and then sitting down to eat something herself. "If you are poor you must do the best you can. Now that I know you I'd rather you had my place than any one else, for"--she gave a swift glance at her mother's closed eyes, and then whispered in Belle's ear--"I couldn't keep it much longer. For the last two weeks it has seemed I'd drop on the floor where you stood to-day, and every night I've had harder work to climb these stairs. Oh, Lord! I wish mother and I could both stay here now till we're carried down together feet foremost."
"Don't talk that way," pleaded Belle, beginning to cry again. "We'll all do for you now, and you both will get better."
"Who's 'we all'? Would you mind telling me a little about who you are, and how you came to get my place?"
Belle's brief sketch of herself, her history, and how the recent events had come about, was very simple, but strong and original, and left no doubt in her listener's mind.
"My gracious!" Clara cried, as the room darkened, "your folks'll be wild about you. I've nothing to offer you but your own, and I've kept you talking when you must have been tired and hungry, but you are so full of life that you put a bit of life in me. It's ages since I felt as you do, and I'll never feel so again. Now run home with your mind at rest. You have done us more good than you have harm, and you never meant us any harm at all."
"Indeed I did not," cried Belle, "but I'm not through with you yet. I'll bring Millie back with me and a lot of things," and she darted away.
The inmates of the two rooms at the Old Mansion were, indeed, anxious over Belle's prolonged absence. Her father had gone to the shop; Mrs. Wheaton, with her apron thrown over her head, was on the sidewalk with Mildred, peering up and down through the dusk, when the half-breathless girl appeared.
Her story was soon told, and Mrs. Wheaton was taken into their confidence. From trembling apprehension on Belle's behalf, kind Mrs. Jocelyn was soon deep in sympathy for the poor woman and her daughter, and offered to go herself and look after them, but Mildred and Mrs. Wheaton took the matter into their own hands, and Belle, after gulping down a hasty supper, was eager to return as guide. Mr. Jocelyn, who had returned from the closed store on a run, had so far recovered from his panic concerning his child that he said he would bring a physician from the dispensary, and, taking the number, went to do his part for those who had become "neighbors unto them." A woman on the same floor offered to look after Mrs. Wheaton's children for an hour or two, and the two sisters and the stout English woman, carrying everything they could think of to make the poor creatures comfortable, and much that they could ill spare, started on their errand of mercy. It never occurred to them that they were engaged in a charity or doing a good deed. They were simply following the impulses of their hearts to help those of whose sore need they had just learned. Mildred panted a little under her load before she reached the top of those long, dark stairs. "I could never get to heaven this way," muttered Belle, upon whom the day of fatigue and excitement was beginning to tell. "It's up, up, up, till you feel like pitching the man who built these steps head first down 'em all. It's Belle, Clara," she said, after a brief knock at the door; then entering, she added, "I told you I'd come back soon with help for you."
"I'm sorry I've nothing to make a light with," Clara answered; "the moon has been so bright of late that we did without light, and then I got all out of money. We either had to pay the rent or go into the street, unless some one took us in. Besides, mother was too sick to be moved."
"I've brought two candles," said Mrs. Wheaton. "They're heasier managed hon a 'ot night," and she soon had one burning on the table and another on the mantel. "I vant to see vat's to be done," she continued, "because I must give yer a 'arty lift him a jiffy and be back to my children hagain." Then going to the sick woman she took her hand and felt her pulse. "'Ow do yer find yerself, mum?" she asked.
"Oh, I'm much--better--I shall--get well now," the poor soul gasped, under the strange hallucination of that disease which, although incurable, ever promises speedy health to its victims.
"That's a splendid; that's the way to talk," cried Belle, who had been oppressed with the fear that the woman would die, and that she in some sense would be to blame. "Clara, this is sister Millie that I told you about," and that was all the introduction the two girls ever had.
"Vy didn't you send yer mother to a 'ospital?" Mrs. Wheaton asked, joining the girls at the table.
"Don't say 'hospital' so mother can hear you. The very word would kill her now, for there's nothing on earth she dreads more than that they'll separate us and send her to a hospital. I've sometimes thought it would have been best, and then it seemed it would kill her at once, she was so opposed to it. That we might keep together and to buy her delicacies I've parted with nearly everything in the room, as you see," and it was bare indeed. A bed from which the element of comfort had long since departed, two rickety chairs, a pine table, a rusty stove, and a few dishes and cooking utensils were about all there was left. With eyes slowly dilating Mildred took in the bleak truth, but said only a few gentle words and was very busy. She lifted Mrs. Bute's head, while Clara gave her a little bread soaked in wine, and then aided Mrs. Wheaton in making the room and bed a little more like what they should be by means of the articles they had brought. Clara wonderingly saw that her little closet was stocked with supplies for days to come. Her mother's preternaturally brilliant eyes followed every movement, also, with a dumb but eager questioning. Tired Belle in the meantime had drawn a chair to the table, and with her head resting on her arms had dropped asleep in a moment.
"Why should your sister work in a store if you're not poor?" Clara asked Mildred. "You can't be poor and spare all these things."
"Yes, we're poor, but not so poor as you are," said Mildred simply. "Belle touched our hearts in your behalf, and we see you need a little neighborly help."
"Well, I was never so mistaken in any one in my life," Clara exclaimed, looking at the sleeping girl, with a remorseful gush of tears. "There isn't a bad streak in her."
At this moment the door opened, and two girls, who had been Clara's companions at the shop, appeared with a few meagre parcels. Before asking them in she pulled them back in the hall and there were a few moments of eager whispering. Then they all came in and looked at Belle, and Clara stooped down and kissed her lightly, at which the girl smiled and murmured, "Dear little mother--always brooding over her chicks."
"She thinks she's home," explained Mildred, with moist eyes.
"This is her sister," said Clara, "and this lady is a friend of theirs. I know they've robbed themselves, they've brought so much."
"Vun's honly ter come to Hameriker ter be a lady," chuckled Mrs. Wheaton under her breath.
"We won't wake your sister," said one of the girls. "She's tired, and no wonder. We haven't treated her right at the store, but we wasn't to blame, for we didn't know her at all. Please tell her that we'll give her a different reception to-morrow," and after another season of whispering in the hall they departed, leaving the simple offerings gleaned from their poverty.
Mr. Jocelyn and the physician soon appeared, and after a brief examination the latter called Mr. Jocelyn aside and said, "Her pulse indicates that she may die at any hour. There is no use in trying to do anything, for the end has come. It has probably been hastened by lack of proper food, but it's too late now to give much, for there is no power of assimilation."
"You had better tell the poor girl the truth, then," said Mr. Jocelyn.
Clara was called, and heard the verdict with a short, convulsive sob, then was her weary, quiet self again, "I feared it was so," was all she said. She now became aware that Mildred stood beside her with an encircling and sustaining arm. "Don't," she whispered; "don't be too kind or I'll break down utterly, and I don't want to before mother. She don't know--she never will believe she can die, and I don't want her to know. I'll have time enough to cry after she's gone."
"I feel I must stay vith yer to-night," warm-hearted Mrs. Wheaton began; "and if Miss Jocelyn vill look hafter my children I vill."
"No, Mrs. Wheaton," said Mildred decidedly, "I'm going to stay. You ought to be with your children. Don't tell Belle, papa, and take the poor child home. Clara and I can now do all that can be done. Please don't say anything against it, for I know I'm right," she pleaded earnestly in answer to her father's look of remonstrance.
"Very well, then, I'll return and stay with you," he said.
The physician's eyes dwelt on Mildred's pale face in strong admiration as he gave her a few directions. "That's right, Millie, make her well for mercy's sake or I'll have the horrors," Belle whispered as she kissed her sister good-night.
Soon Clara and Mildred were alone watching the gasping, fitful sleeper. "After all that's been done--for me--to-night I'll--surely get well," she had murmured, and she closed her eyes without an apparent doubt of recovery.
Mildred furtively expiorea the now dimly lighted room. "Merciful Heaven," she sighed, "shall we ever come to this?" Clara's eyes were fixed on her mother's face with pathetic intensity, watching the glimmer of that mysterious thing we call life, that flickered more and more faintly. The difference between the wasted form, with its feeble animation, and what it must soon become would seem slight, but to the daughter it would be wide indeed. Love could still answer love, even though it was by a sign, a glance, a whisper only; but when to the poor girl it would be said of her mother, "She's gone," dim and fading as the presence had been, manifested chiefly by the burdens it imposed, its absence would bring the depths of desolation and sorrow.
Going the poor creature evidently was, and whither? The child she was leaving knew little of what was bright and pleasant in this world, and nothing of the next. "Miss Jocelyn," she began hesitatingly.
"Don't call me Miss Jocelyn; I'm a working-girl like yourself."
"Millie, then, as Belle said?"
"Millie, do you believe in a heaven?"
"What is it like?"
"I don't know very well. It's described to us under every grand and beautiful image the world affords. I think we'll find it what we best need to make us happy."
"Oh, then it would be rest for mother and me," the girl sighed wearily.
"It's surely rest," Mildred replied quickly, "for I remember a place in the Bible where it says, 'There remaineth a rest for the people of God.'"
"That's it," said Clara with some bitterness; "it's always the people of God. What remains for such as we, who have always been so busy fighting the wolf that we've thought little of God or church?"
"You've been no poorer, Clara, than Christ was all His life, and were He on earth now as He was once, I'd bring Him here to your room. He'd come, too, for He lived among just such people as we are, and never once refused to help them in their troubles or their sins."
"Once--once," cried Clara, with a gush of tears. "Where is He now?"
"Here with us. I know it, for we need Him. Our need is our strongest claim--one that He never refused. I have entreated Him in your behalf and your mother's, and do you ask Him also to put heaven at the end of this dark and often thorny path which most of us must tread in this world."
"Oh, Millie, Millie, I'm ignorant as a heathen. I did have a Bible, but I sold even that to buy wine to save mother's life. I might better have been thinking of saving her soul. She's too sick to be talked to now, but surely she ought to find at least a heaven of rest. You could never understand the life she's led. She hasn't lived--she's just been dragged through the world. She was born in a tenement-house. The little play she ever had was on sidewalks and in the gutters; she's scarcely ever seen the country. Almost before she knew how to play she began to work. When she was only seventeen a coarse, bad man married her. How it ever came about I never could understand. I don't believe he knew anything more of love than a pig; for he lived like one and died like one, only he didn't die soon enough. It seems horrible that I should speak in this way of my father, and yet why should I not, when he was a horror to me ever since I can remember? Instead of taking care of mother, she had to take care of him. He'd take the pittance she had wrung from the washtub for drink, and then come back to repay her for it with blows and curses. I guess we must have lived in fifty tenements, for we were always behind with the rent and so had to move here and there, wherever we could get a place to put our heads in. Queer places some of them were, I can tell you--mere rat-holes. They served one purpose, though--they finished off the children. To all mother's miseries and endless work was added the anguish of child-bearing. They were miserable, puny, fretful little imps, that were poisoned off by the bad air in which we lived, and our bad food--that is, when we had any--after they had made all the trouble they could. I had the care of most of them, and my life became a burden before I was seven years old. I used to get so tired and faint that I was half glad when they died. At last, when mother became so used up that she really couldn't work any more, father did for us the one good act that I know anything about--he went off on a big spree that finished him. Mother and I have clung together ever since. We've often been hungry, but we've never been separated a night. What a long night is coming now, in which the doctor says we shall be parted!" and the poor girl crouched on the floor where her mother could not see her should she open her eyes, and sobbed convulsively.
Mildred did not try to comfort her with words, but only with caresses. Christ proved centuries ago that the sympathetic touch is healing.
"Oh, Millie, I seem to feel the gentle stroke of your hand on my heart as well as on my brow, and it makes the pain easier to bear. It makes me feel as if the coarse, brutal life through which I've come did not separate me from one so good and different as you are; for though you may be poor, you are as much of a lady as any I've ever waited on at the store. And then to look at your father and to think of mine. I learned to hate men even when a child, for nearly all I ever knew either abused me or tempted me; but, Millie, you need not fear to touch me. I never sold myself, though I've been faint with hunger. I'm ignorant, and my heart's been full of bitterness, but I'm an honest girl."
"Poor, poor Clara!" said Mildred brokenly, "my heart aches for you as I think of all you've suffered."
The girl sprang up, seized the candle, and held it to Mildred's face. "My God," she whispered, "you are crying over my troubles." Then she looked steadfastly into the tearful blue eyes and beautiful face of her new friend for a moment, and said, "Millie, I'll believe any faith you'll teach me, for I believe in you."
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