The house was very still. In the little room over the porch the Lady in Black sat alone. Near her a child's white dress lay across a chair, and on the floor at her feet a tiny pair of shoes, stubbed at the toes, lay where an apparently hasty hand had thrown them. A doll, head downward, hung over a chair-back, and a toy soldier with drawn sword dominated the little stand by the bed. And everywhere was silence--the peculiar silence that comes only to a room where the clock has ceased to tick.
The clock--such a foolish little clock of filigree gilt--stood on the shelf at the foot of the bed; and as the Lady in Black looked at it she remembered the wave of anger that had surged over her when she had thrust out her hand and silenced it that night three months before. It had seemed so monstrous to her that the pulse in that senseless thing of gilt should throb on unheeding while below, on the little white bed, that other pulse was so pitiably still. Hence she had thrust out her hand and stopped it. It had been silent ever since--and it should remain silent, too. Of what possible use were the hours it would tick away now? As if anything mattered, with little Kathleen lying out there white and still under the black earth!
The Lady in Black stirred restlessly, and glanced toward the closed door. Behind it she knew was a little lad with wide blue eyes and a dimpling mouth who wanted her; but she wished he would not call her by that name. It only reminded her of those other little lips--silent now.
"Muvver!" The voice was more insistent.
The Lady in Black did not answer. He might go away, she thought, if she did not reply.
There was a short silence, then the door-knob rattled and turned half around under the touch of plainly unskilled fingers. The next moment the door swung slowly back on its hinges and revealed at full length the little figure in the Russian suit.
"Pe-eek!" It was a gurgling cry of joyful discovery, but it was followed almost instantly by silence. The black-garbed, unsmiling woman did not invite approach, and the boy fell back at his first step. He hesitated, then spoke, tentatively, "I's--here."
It was, perhaps, the worst thing he could have said. To the Lady in Black it was a yet more bitter reminder of that other one who was not there. She gave a sharp cry and covered her face with her hands.
"Bobby, Bobby, how can you taunt me with it?" she moaned, in a frenzy of unreasoning grief. "Go away--go away! I want to be alone--alone!"
All the brightness fled from the boy's face. His mouth was no longer dimpled, and his eyes showed a grieved hurt in their depths. Very slowly he turned away. At the top of the stairs he stopped and looked back. The door was still open, and the Lady in Black still sat with her hands over her face. He waited, but she did not move; then, with a half-stifled sob, he dropped on the top step and began to bump down the stairs, one at a time.
Long minutes afterward the Lady in Black raised her head and saw him through the window. He was down in the yard with his father, having a frolic under the apple tree.
The Lady in Black looked at them with somber eyes, and her mouth hardened at the corners. Bobby down there in the yard could laugh and dance and frolic. Bobby had some one to play with him, some one to love him and care for him; while out there on the hillside Kathleen was alone--all alone. Kathleen had no one--
With a little cry the Lady in Black sprang to her feet and hurried into her own room. Her hands shook as she pinned on her hat and shrouded herself in the long folds of her black veil; but her step was firm as she swept downstairs and out through the hall.
The man under the apple tree rose hurriedly and came forward.
"Helen, dearest,--not again, to-day!" he begged. "Darling, it can't do any good!"
"But she's alone--all alone. You don't seem to think! No one thinks--no one knows how I feel. You don't understand--if you did, you'd come with me. You wouldn't ask me to stay--here!" choked the woman.
"I have been with you, dear," said the man gently. "I 've been with you to-day, and every day, almost, since--since she left us. But it can't do any good--this constant brooding over her grave. It only makes additional sorrow for you, for me, and for Bobby. Bobby is--here, you know, dear!"
"No, no, don't say it," sobbed the woman wildly. "You don't understand--you don't understand!" And she turned and hurried away, a tall black shadow of grief, followed by the anguished eyes of the man, and the wistful puzzled eyes of the boy.
It was not a long walk to the tree-embowered plot of ground where the marble shafts and slabs glistened in the sunlight, and the Lady in Black knew the way; yet she stumbled and reached out blindly, and she fell, as if exhausted, before a little stone marked "Kathleen." Near her a gray-haired woman, with her hands full of pink and white roses, watched her sympathetically. She hesitated, and opened her lips as if she would speak, then she turned slowly and began to arrange her flowers on a grave near by.
At the slight stir the Lady in Black raised her head. For a time she watched in silence; then she threw back her veil and spoke.
"You care, too," she said softly. "You understand. I've seen you here before, I'm sure. And was yours--a little girl?"
The gray-haired woman shook her head.
"No, dearie, it's a little boy--or he was a little boy forty years ago."
"Forty years--so long! How could you have lived forty years--without him?"
Again the little woman shook her head.
"One has to--sometimes, dearie; but this little boy was n't mine. He was none of my kith nor kin."
"But you care--you understand. I 've seen you here so often before."
"Yes. You see, there's no one else to care. But there was once, and I 'm caring now--for her."
"Oh-h!" It was a tender little cry, full of quick sympathy--the eyes of the Lady in Black were on the stone marked "Kathleen."
"It ain't as if I did n't know how she'd feel," muttered the gray-haired little woman musingly, as she patted her work into completion and turned toward the Lady in Black. "You see, I was nurse to the boy when it happened, and for years afterward I worked in the family; so I know. I saw the whole thing from the beginning, from the very day when the little boy here met with the accident."
"Accident!" It was a sob of anguished sympathy from Kathleen's mother.
"Yes. 'T was a runaway; and he did n't live two days."
"I know--I know!" choked the Lady in Black--yet she was not thinking of the boy and the runaway.
"Things stopped then for my mistress," resumed the little gray-haired woman, after a moment, "and that was the beginning of the end. She had a husband and a daughter, but they did n't count--not either of 'em. Nothin' counted but this little grave out here; and she came and spent hours over it, trimmin' it with flowers and talkin' to it."
The Lady in Black raised her head suddenly and threw a quick glance into the other's face; but the gray-haired woman's eyes were turned away, and after a moment she went on speaking.
"The house got gloomier and gloomier, but she did n't seem to mind. She seemed to want it so. She shut out the sunshine and put away lots of the pictures; and she wouldn't let the pianner be opened at all. She never sat anywhere in the house only in the boy's room, and there everything was just as 'twas when he left it. She would n't let a thing be touched. I wondered afterward that she did n't see where 't was all leadin' to--but she did n't."
"'Leading to'?" The voice shook.
"Yes. I wondered she did n't see she was losin' 'em--that husband and daughter; but she did n't see it."
The Lady in Black sat very still. Even the birds seemed to have stopped their singing. Then the gray-haired woman spoke:
"So, you see, that's why I come and put flowers here--it's for her sake. There's no one else now to care," she sighed, rising to her feet.
"But you haven't told yet--what happened," murmured the Lady in Black, faintly.
"I don't know myself--quite. I know the man went away. He got somethin' to do travelin', so he was n't home much. When he did come he looked sick and bad. There were stories that he wa'n't quite straight always--but maybe that wa'n't true. Anyhow, he come less and less, and he died away--but that was after she died. He's buried over there, beside her and the boy. The girl--well, nobody knows where the girl is. Girls like flowers and sunshine and laughter and young folks, you know, and she did n't get any of them at home. So she went--where she did get 'em, I suppose. Anyhow, nobody knows just where she is now. . . . There, and if I have n't gone and tired you all out with my chatter!" broke off the little gray-haired woman contritely. "I 'm sure I don't know why I got to runnin' on so!"
"No, no--I was glad to hear it," faltered the Lady in Black, rising unsteadily to her feet. Her face had grown white, and her eyes showed a sudden fear. "But I must go now. Thank you." And she turned and hurried away.
The house was very still when the Lady in Black reached home--and she shivered at its silence. Through the hall and up the stairs she went hurriedly, almost guiltily. In her own room she plucked at the shadowy veil with fingers that tore the filmy mesh and found only the points of the pins. She was crying now--a choking little cry with broken words running through it; and she was still crying all the while her hands were fumbling at the fastenings of her somber black dress.
Long minutes later, the Lady--in Black no longer--trailed slowly down the stairway. Her eyes showed traces of tears, and her chin quivered, but her lips were bravely curved in a smile. She wore a white dress and a single white rose in her hair; while behind her, in the little room over the porch, a tiny clock of filigree gilt ticked loudly on its shelf at the foot of the bed.
There came a sound of running feet in the hall below; then:
"Muvver!--it's muvver come back!" cried a rapturous voice.
And with a little sobbing cry Bobby's mother opened her arms to her son.