THE next morning Ellen was awake and staring, wide-eyed, at the dawn long before the maids, in the faint light, went yawning down to the kitchen.
It seemed, when she awoke, as though some terrible dream had oppressed her, and she felt for a moment that sense of wondering relief, that grown persons know too well, and that fades so instantly into miserable certainty. Ellen, with a frightened sigh, remembered, and then buried her fare in her pillow, and felt the tears behind her eyes, though no tears came. Older persons know that pain, too. In this pale morning light the child saw her project as it really was, stripped of those mists of imagination which had made it appear beautiful and admirable. It was impossible! How had she ever dared to think of such a thing? Yet how could she break her promise to Effie? The honesty of that thought drove her into planning the details of this impossible action. She must make her arrangements, even though she might not be able to carry them out. First she must pack her “things ” up in something. She began to think of a certain leather bag which had belonged to her grandfather; she saw it in her memory, — the sole leather worn and shabby, and the ‘" Eben Dale ” in fat black letters on one side. She must get that bag. She must — steal it! Well, she had nothing else; she could n’t help it; it wasn’t her fault; she had to have a hag. Poor little Ellen! trying so early in life to reconcile selfblame and self-pity, and learning, as do older sinners, that in any honest mind they are forever enemies.
The bag was in the spare room across the hall. She was afraid of this rarely used room, it was so dark and silent, and once her grandfather had lain dead in it! No one guessed what terrors had shaken the child whenever she had bad to enter it. She used to run past its closed door, flinging a scared look over her shoulder. It seemed to her that some time the door would open and something stand on the threshold: she never said what would stand there; her terror needed no detail of words. Oh, how hard it was that the bag should be in that room!
She crept out of bed, and, without waiting to dress, stole across the hall and softly pushed the spare-room door open. The shutters were bowed, and one thin line of the sweet morning light came in from the dawn outside, touching, like a pointing finger, the great bed, draped in its white valance and coverlet. Its four mahogany posts made Ellen think of the obelisk which marked Dr. Dale’s grave in the churchyard. The noiseless, lifting line of the sunbeam lay upon the white matting, almost at her feet; she stopped, then stepped across it, with a gasp. After that, though the tide of resolution rose and fell, the deed was practically done; in the child’s mind arose confusedly the vision of the sword of tremulous flame outside the gate of Paradise. The morning sunbeam and the little child made the picture of a human heart’s profanity. Ellen felt, but did not understand, this critical moment created by her imagination.
Suddenly she thought the valance about the bed fluttered, and she almost cried out, and then stood with staring eyes. Oh, what if there were something under that awful bed? There was a moment of strained silence; then, on tiptoe, looking sideways at the valance, she glided across the room, Never once did she turn her back upon the bed; it seemed as though, if she glanced away for an instant, she should see, when she looked back, the long straight lines of the sheet, as she had seen them three years before. When at last she held the bag in her hand, and crept towards the door, a glimpse of herself in the glass, in her white nightgown, startled her so that she almost dropped it.
When the first fright was over, Ellen began to pack her dearly bought valise. How silent the house was! The wet leaves of the woodbine outside her window began to shine, as the sun looked around the corner of the house; some birds twittered ; she heard a latch lift and fall, and knew that the women were going downstairs. It was very exciting. She must hurry with her packing, she thought, or Betsey Thomas might discover her.
What should she take with her? Her best dress, certainly; but she found, on squeezing it into the smallest possible bundle, that there would be little room for anything else in the bag, so drew it out again, meshed with wrinkles. In its place she put a small china vase, and then sat down upon the floor to reflect upon what else was necessary. Her Sunday hat, of course. The soft leghorn, with its white ribbons, was easily rolled up and pushed into the yawning jaws of the bag. Boots, — she should need boots? “I might get my feet wet, ” she considered, proud to find how practical she was. So, hastily, she dropped a pair of shoes in beside the hat; and then, with a quick impulse, tucked her Bible in one corner. This gave her tortured little conscience a momentary relief; it was so good to take her Bible! Her bank? She had almost forgotten her bank, That would have been, indeed, a serious omission. And here she came to the end of her packing. There was really nothing else to take; money, boots, a hat, and a Bible, —what else was needed for a journey ? So she pushed the bag under the bed, that it might escape Betsey’s eyes when she should enter with the tray and breakfast. But Betsey, when she came, did not glance about the room, nor speak to Ellen ; following Mrs. Dale’s directions, she put the tray down silently, and went away.
Ellen debated within herself whether she should eat her breakfast or put it in her bag. She decided on the former course; for, as the food was to be eaten some time, as well now as later. Breakfast over, came the waiting until nine o’clock, when she was to escape by means of the back stairs. She was greatly excited, and when, suddenly, her bedroom door opened she started so violently that Betsey Thomas tried to reassure her before delivering a message from Mrs. Dale.
“Don’t be scared, Ellen; law, it’s only me. And Ellen, why don’t you be a good girl? I don’t mind nothin’! You just say you 'll apologize, child. Do, now, Ellen,” she said anxiously.
Ellen did not answer.
“Anyway, your grandmother says you are to go out of doors for an hour and walk; and then she says — well, says she, ' Ellen can come and see me, if she ’s anything to say,’Do, Ellen. I wish ’t you would, child? ”
Ellen looked out of the window to hide the tears that were trembling on her lashes.
“ Your grandmother has a headache ; she ain’t up yet, ” Betsey ended significantly, her hand upon the door-knob; arid then she turned back to add, “I’m to leave your dinner on the chest of drawers in the back entry, Ellen, and you ’re to get it yourself, your grandmother says.”
The little girl looked scared; had she made her grandmother ill? She had promised Effie,—she must not break her word; but how dreadful if she had made her grandmother ill! Oh, how unhappy she was! She kept saying over and over to herself that she had “promised Effie,” and so she must go. But when, with her bag in her hand, she started, ostensibly for the hour’s walk in the garden, it was still incredible to her that she should be able to keep her word. She stopped a moment in the upper hall to wipe her eyes, and then, feeling very homesick, she crept to her grandmother’s door, and, kneeling down, softly kissed the knob.
There was no sound behind the closed door, for Mrs. Dale had had her coffee and dropped into a nap; but the lack of any response to her burst of affection made Ellen’s old bitterness come back; the sense of being badly treated put her mind again into the comfortable grooves of habit, and an unreal wretchedness made her so much happier that she was able to be interested in the situation, and say to herself that she was “escaping.” She actually sauntered through the gooseberry bushes of the kitchen garden, taking the exercise which her grandmother had permitted her. The lawful prelude to an unlawful event had its charm for Ellen.
She said to herself that her absence would not be discovered until the afternoon, for Betsey Thomas would not go for the tray before three o’clock at the earliest.
Effie was waiting for her on the summer-house steps, looking quite pale. Before Ellen reached her she began to talk in an agitated way. “Ellen, do you know, I believe—I — I can’t. I ’m not going to. I ’m awfully sorry — but — aunty wants me to have a dress fitted this afternoon. And don’t you see, I can’t? I ’m awfully sorry.” Effie was very much embarrassed.
Ellen was out of breath; the bag, with all that money in the iron bank, was heavy. She stopped, put it down on the step, and looked up at Effie silently. Effie was very nervous.
“Well, you see, I can’t help it; I ’ve got to have my dress fitted. It isn’t my fault. And you can go just the same. ”
“Do you mean, ” said Ellen in a low voice, “that you’ve backed out? ”
Effie began to cry. “Well, what ’s the use? I ’m not like you; my papa’s not dead, and he ’d catch me right off. Besides, he ’s awfully fond of me. So what ’s the use ? ”
“Oh, Nellie, you ’re not mad? You can go all the same. I ’ve brought you lots of food to take. Only you mustn’t tell that I did; they’d scold me.”
“Of course I shall go all the same. If you don’t tell, you won’t be scolded.”
“Oh, I won’t tell,” Effie promised, with a gasp; “only, don’t you think they might find out ? They 'll think I ought to have told on you.”
Ellen’s lip quivered. “I guess they won’t find out,” she said; “but I did n’t suppose it was right to break your word, Effie Temple. ”
“Oh, well, if you are going to get mad,” said Effie, “I would n’t go for anything! I hate people that get mad. ”
Ellen swallowed hard, and, turning away from Effie, blinked several times.
“What have you got in your bag? ” Effie began, softening a little. “Any cake? And, Nellie. I thought I ’d just say, I don’t think you ought togo. Now I ’m not to blame; so let’s plan. See the things I ’ve brought: eggs — they are not cooked — and cake. Look! is n’t that nice? ”
“I don’t want your cake,” said Ellen, her little red lower lip quivering, “and I don’t want to make any more plans with you. I ’m going now; goodby, Euphemia Temple. I ’ll never speak to you again.”
Effie was divided between interest and anger, in which there was also a little fear that Ellen would not go, and so all this excitement would come to an end. “It’s real mean to talk that way just because I can’t go. I have awfully pretty dresses, —not like yours, —and they have to be fitted. I won’t tell — and — don’t you, either, when you come back. I mean, if you come back. And write to me, Nellie. Oh, my goodness, I wish I was going. Gracious! it’s splendid! ”
Such admiration touched Ellen, who had already reached the lower step. “Yes, I’ll write to you,” she said, “though I don’t think you are a very good friend.” It did not occur to Ellen that here was her opportunity to “back out.” Somehow, this deflection only strengthened her purpose; very likely, had Effie been faithful and urged her, she would have had some wholesome hesitation.
Effie stood up, shading her eyes with her hand, and watching Ellen’s little figure flit across the orchard and down the hill to the highway. There the elderberry bushes that fringed the road hid her for a moment, and then she was swallowed up in a cloud of dust, as a wagon went jogging by.
So began Ellen’s journey into the world.
The sun poured hot and white upon the long stretch of sandy road. Ellen had hurried through the village, and, as it chanced, met no one. Near the post-office, on the main street, she saw a familiar figure which gave her an instant’s fear. It was Miss Jane Temple; she had a letter in her hand, and seemed to be reading its address with absent intentness; she never once looked up. Escaped from those friendly eyes, Ellen was soon beyond Old Chester.
She walked steadily and quite rapidly. She passed two or three people; one man, who knew her, said, “Hullo, Ellen! ” in a surprised way, but asked no questions. After that she walked for a while in the fields along the road, so that she might not be seen. The bag was heavy, and so was her heart.
It was nearly dinner time. Ellen had rejected Effie’s cake and eggs, and those friendly berries which in storybooks offer themselves to wandering children did not appear. There were locust-trees here and there by the roadside, but they had nothing to give her but a flickering shade. She really wished very much that she had eaten more breakfast. If she could see a shop, she would open her bank, she thought, and buy something. But not only were there no shops in sight; there were no houses, either.
She had taken every cross-road and lane and turn, and walked through fields, and skirted meadows, and now had quite lost her bearings, and had no idea where she was. Reaching the railroad at Mercer had appeared simple enough when she and Effie talked it over, but where was Mercer ? She stumbled a little as she plodded through the dust, and then said to herself that she was so tired she must sit down and rest.
It was just noon. The mowed fields on either side of the road lay in a hot blur of sunshine; the long z-z-ing of the locusts seemed to emphasize the stillness. So far, the child had been sustained by excitement, and anger at Effie, and consciousness of achievement; but little by little a dull ache of reality began to make itself felt. She perceived, far off, the moment when resolution would flag. But it was very far off. She would still pretend to herself that she was going to Mercer. Down the white road a little cloud of dust was creeping along. Ellen could hear a slow creaking jolt before she could distinguish in the dusty nimbus a peddler’s cart. It was covered with sunburned canvas, and, as all the weight was on the front seat, it tilted up behind and sagged upon the front wheels. The white mule which jogged between the shafts was driven by a large person with a ruddy face; he wore spectacles, whose round silver rims looked like little satellites of his moonlike countenance, which had also a halo about it, made by a fringe of white whiskers under his chin, and a gray felt hat worn on the back of his head. His elbows were on his knees, and the veins hung loosely between his fingers; he was humming to himself, and once or twice his head nodded, as though he were half asleep; indeed, his eyes were closed, and he would not have noticed Ellen, standing at the roadside, had not the mule come to a standstill to kick a fly from its gray, shaggy stomach.
“Hallo!” said the man, opening his eyes.
“ Yes, sir, ” said Ellen nervously.
“Goin’ my way? ”
“Yes, sir,” Ellen said, having not the slightest idea where he was going.
“ Edward and me ’ll give thee a lift; git in.”
“Oh, no, thank you, sir, I —I ’m going to Mercer.”
Her voice quivered so that the peddler looked at her with sudden scrutiny. “ Hallo, what’s this? ” said he. “Why, sissy, Mercer is twenty miles off! Come, thee’d better git in; I ’m goin’ that way.”
There was something so pleasant in the kindliness of his face that Ellen, tired, and afraid of her own thoughts, and dumfounded at the idea of the twenty miles still before her, found herself saying, “Thank you, sir,” and climbing in over the wheel.
The white mule pricked up first one ear and then the other, and with reluctance began to move; his master turned his friendly spectacles upon Ellen. “Thee ’s a little tot to be going to Mercer by theeself, ” he said.
Ellen did not reply.
There was a pause, in which the peddler seemed to seek a meaning in her silence, and then he said, with clumsy and painstaking gentleness, “Does th’ folks know thee’s going to Mercer, sissy? ”
“I think I’ll get out and walk,” Ellen said agitatedly.
The peddler made a little clucking sound, as though to soothe her; and then he chuckled to himself, but did not stop Edward; he only said, " Here’s a joke !”
Ellen politely tried to call up a smile, but she saw nothing funny. She wished she had not gotten into the cart.
“I’m going to be a milliner,” she said, with childish embarrassment at silence.
“Well, now, ain’t that strange ? I ’m in the millinery way myself; though I ’m a literary man. I sell books. There ’s nothin’ like literature for improvin’ folks.”He paused, and beamed upon Ellen. “Like books?”
“Yes, sir. I like to read very much, ” she answered. Ellen was vain of this liking to read. She had often heard Betsey Thomas speak of it with admiration and wonder.
The peddler nodded his head; his spectacles had a kindly gleam in them. “I can’t say that I ’m particular about readin’ books, but I like cm. And I like to sell 'em. My house is full of ’em. Thee ’s welcome to look at ’em.”
“Thank you, sir, but I think I must n’t stop,” returned Ellen, feeling snubbed, for this gentleman was evidently contemptuous about reading. “ I am going oil to Mercer.”
“Thee has no call to stop,” the man explained. “This is my house, this cart. I sleep in it, and eat in it, and follow my literary pursuits in it. A-puttin’ th’ house on wheels don’t stop its bein’ th’ house, huh?”
“Oh, no, sir,”Ellen assured him nervously.
“Yes; look around, look around, and make theeself at home. This here seat we’re settin’ on is the front piazza; that there shelf, back, is my bedroom; this here roomy space right behind us is the parlor; and right behind it, — see that chalk line? ” (he had fastened the reins on a hook in the wagon frame above his head, so that he could turn and direct Ellen’s glances about the cart), — “that chalk line is the wall between the kitchen and pallor. When it rains, I go in off the piazza and set in my parlor, and Edward, he goes on. Them boxes on the shelf overhead is my garret; they’re full of finery, ribbons and such things. The ladies will have them. Now, for me, I 'd rather have books. There’s the library under my bed. All convenient, all right to th’ hand. Honest, I pities the people with them big, uneasy houses. Wo lonesome in ’em, they must be! ”
Ellen was much interested; she began to think that she would go about in a cart instead of being a milliner. Perhaps she had better ask Ibis kind gentleman s advice as to where she could get a cart, and a white mule like Edward ? (But all the while, in the background of her heart, she saw herself at home again.)
She could not ask her qestion at once, because the peddler stopped at the door of a farmhouse; and Ellen, curled up on the seat, watched the ingratiating politeness with which he enticed a reluctant customer. He looked over his glasses, nodding his head in candid assent to each objection that was made, as though he had no personal interest in disposing of his goods. He showed a beguiling sympathy for the purchaser’s economical hesitation,—a sympathy that was almost an entreaty not to purchase, and that could not but result in a sale. When they drove away, followed by a barking dog, and leaving a yard of cotton lace in exchange for the money jingling in the peddler’s hand, he began to sing to himself; he seemed to have forgotten Ellen, who felt neglected.
“I think perhaps I ’d like to sell things in a cart, ” she said, with dignity and resentment.
Her host, interrupted his singing, and looked at her. Then he chuckled. “ It s a good business. Course it’s some lonesome. Thee might be dyin’ in th’ house, lyin’ there in the parlor, fer instance, and not one ’ud care; hut thee’s free, in this business; thee’s shut of all th’ friends that boss thee — and want th’ money!” said the peddler, with a sudden seriousness of his own.
“I think it would be very pleasant to play house in a wagon,” said Ellen, struggling against the depression of possible loneliness, and a little disappointed that no reference was made to the sorrow of deserted friends.
“Yes, yes, ’t is,”the peddler admitted. “But nights, now, fer instance. Lyin there in thy bedroom, hoo! thee don’t know what ’ll come at thee in the dark! ”
Ellen was instantly frightened. “I — I think I won’t,’ she said faintly. “I guess I ’ll he a milliner.”
“Well, that ’s genteel; and yet they do say that they starve, the milliners, mostly. Graveyards is full of ’em.”
“Why, but,’’Ellen protested, “bonnets are twenty-five dollars apiece; I should think they 'd be rich, the milliners ? ”
Among the peddler’s customers, ladies who paid twenty-five dollars for a bonnet were not frequent, but he wisely avoided the discussion. Instead, he remarked, “Yes, and fifty dollars! But thee sees, the fifties and the twenty-fives conies to gentlemen in my line. The milliners have to get their things from us. They don’t make much.”
This was beyond Ellen, but, though she did not understand it, it left her in doleful uncertainty in regard to her plans. She sighed, and turned the subject by asking the peddler if he ever thought that may be he was dreaming.
“Huh?” said the man, slapping a rein on Edward’s back, and turning the puzzled benevolence of his mild eyes upon her.
But Ellen found it hard to explain. This thought of the possible unreality of the present had always been a vague terror, for it usually haunted her happiest moments. Suppose it was all a dream, —her pleasant life, her paper dolls, her little teas with Lydia, her garden, and the swing under the front porch, — a dream, and she really a poor little beggar, about to awake to hunger and cold and misery? But now, when she put the question to the peddler, she thought how happy she would be if she awoke and found this a dream!
“I only meant,” she said, trying to keep her voice from trembling, “that I don’t know how we know we ’re not dreaming. Sometimes I think I 'll waken up and find I 'm — a Laplander, all dressed up in skins, and milking reindeers, and living in a tent; or ” — Ellen began to get interested, in spite of the ache in her heart that made talking an effort— “or may be a Chinese baby, in a cradle all painted with dragons, and my feet squeezed up.”
“Well, I swan!” said the peddler. He looked at Ellen curiously; it occurred to him that she was crazy.
“ Don’t you ever think those things?" she asked eagerly.
“Well, now thee’s said it, — I don’t,” the man admitted gravely. “Poor little tot! ” he said to himself, “she ain’t just right, I guess.”
“Oh, I think about it lots,” Ellen assured him. “Sometimes I think” — this in a lowered voice, for it was a very secret thought, with which she comforted herself when Betsey Thomas was more than usually aggravating, and which she had never confided even to Lydia— “I think I’m the queen’s daughter, and when I wake I 'll be in a golden palace. And then, other times, I’ve thought that it wasn’t a dream, but only that it. was a secret from me, and people didn’t want me to know I was a queen’s daughter yet. They wanted me to be brought up in a republican country, you know. But I 'll be sent for when I 'm eighteen, and all the prime ministers and grand viziers and congressmen will come, and kneel down, and say, ‘You 're a princess, and here’s your crown! ’ ” Ellen’s face had cleared, as if some morning wind had blown away the clouds of a spring dawn. “Just think!" she cried ; “would n’t it be splendid ! My!”
“Well, well,” said the peddler, “I guess th’ folks don’t find the handlin’ of thee real easy ? There, now, sissy, it ain’t healthy to have them dreams. Did n’t thy ma ever tell thee so?”
“My mother’s gone to heaven, and so has my father,” said Ellen. “I live with grandmother. ” She turned her head away with a confused look. The fact that she was an orphan was not at all a grief to Ellen, for she did not remember her parents, but it was an embarrassment ; it meant that she needed the prayers of the Church, and the petition “defend and provide for the fatherless children ” made her, every Sunday, turn hot and red at the publicity of her condition. She was relieved when the peddler requested Edward to stop, and changed the subject by observing that it was time for dinner.
Ellen brightened, and immediately felt that life was real. It was after three, and she was positively faint with hunger. They drew up on the shady side of the road, and she watched the peddler hang a battered canvas bag full of oats about Edward’s neck; then he went around to the back of the wagon to reach his kitchen.
“I 'm goin’ to cook my dinner,” he said. His spectacles had such a friendly gleam that Ellen felt happier, in spite of that weight upon her heart. But the moment of return seemed very near. “ There ’s an open place back in there, under the trees, nice and grassy; I call it the restaurant. I always cook there when I go by this way. There ’s a spring, too. Edward, he stays by to mind the cart.”
He lifted out a queer little stove, and then a frying-pan and a saucepan, and a basket in which seemed to he various articles of food. “May be thee 'd like to look at a book for a while,” he said, “until thee gits th’ own dinner ? ”
He handed Ellen a pamphlet bound in yellow paper, and then pushed the bushes aside and disappeared into the woods. Ellen looked listlessly at the cover of the book, on which was a print of a lady in blue, with feathers in her hair, and a gentleman in red, with a sword; she was wondering how soon the dinner would be cooked. The peddler did not come back. There was only Edward, flinging up his head occasionally and crunching his oats, to keep her company. The wagon had been drawn up close to the roadside, so that other vehicles might pass, but there were none in sight; the woods on either side were thick and still; a rod away a thread of water fell with a musical sound from a hollowed log into a rusty iron caldron. Edward glanced at it patiently once or twice.
It made Ellen thirsty, the faint gleam and drip and bubbling sound, but she dared not leave the cart to get a drink, lest the peddler might return to say that dinner was ready.
As she sat there a savory smell of cooking came through the bushes; it was really very hard to wait so long. She tried to forget her hunger by reading the little book. It was the story in rhyme of Lord Belchan and Lady Susey Pye. The pictures were rough prints, in the primary colors, of lords and ladies, parrots and castles, strange ships and battles. “Lord Belchan,” she read —
A noble lord of high degree,
And he determinèd to go abroad,
Strange countries for to see ! ”
But Ellen was too hungry to be interested. She began to wonder whether the peddler had forgotten her. At last she could hear it no longer, and, climbing down from the cart, she went timidly into the woods. It was so dark and shadowy under the trees that for an instant she did not see the peddler, sitting, his arms clasped about his knees, gazing anxiously in her direction. A look of relief came into his face, followed by an affectation of vast indifference.
“Well, sissy,” he said, “has thee had th’ dinner?”
“ My dinner ! ” Ellen faltered. “Why — I — She stood quite still, looking at him, her little chin quivering and her eyes filling.
It was more than those kindly spectacles could stand. “There, now; well, well; come, child, eat a bit, here. I don’t mind givin’ thee a little; though it ain’t what’s done in the world. It ’s everybody fer themselves, when a lady or gentleman don’t have no use fer friends, and has left ’em! Of course, thee knows it ain’t nothin’ to me ef thee’s hungry. I only look out fer myself.”He turned his back upon the child, for he could not bear those slow, rolling tears, and he heaped a tin plate with a queer combination of fried meat and potatoes. “Eat that,” he said gruffly; and then, with instant softening, “There, now, sissy! But ’t ain’t like home: I was just pointin’ that out to thee, that ’s all.”
Ellen silently took the tin plate and began to eat.
“Of course,” the peddler said, “of course thee must n’t expect, after this, folks thee ’s got no claim on will feed thee, now thee’s got shut of th’ friends. Thee knows the Good Book allows that if a man don’t do his own peddling he ain’t to eat. But thee’s free, and of course it’s fine to be free.”
“I have my bank, sir, and I ’ll pay you for my dinner, ” said Ellen, a trembling dignity in her voice; “and I guess I ’ll go now.”
“Go? Thee means to Mercer ? Well, Edward an’ me’ll be joggin’ on soon, and we ’ll take thee.”
Ellen did not answer. Oh, how could she get away from this dreadful man, who was dragging her to Mercer? The friendly feeling that had accompanied her confidences faded. “I won’t go to Mercer!” she thought, and experienced the relief of being angry at somebody else for her own wrong doing, — a relief often sought by sinners of more advanced years.
The peddler had gone out into the road to water Edward, but came back again, and sat down on the soft forest grass between the roots of a great chestnut. “We 'll rest a bit, on Edward’s account,” he said, “and then we ’ll go on. I believe I ’ll just shut my eyes for about five minutes.”
He stretched himself out on the ground, and, putting the felt hat over his eyes, crossed his hands upon his breast. He was chuckling to himself over this adventure with a runaway child, and planning, with an imagination as fertile as Ellen’s own, the delight of her family when he should return her, safe and sound, which he meant to do about six o’clock. “I can’t shunt off no customer fer the little tot,” he reflected, “but I ’ll get her home by six. I guess her grandma ’ll be a good customer after this.”
The cooking-stove stood in the little plot of forest grass, with the untidy tin plates resting on its cooling top; a spring, bubbling up between some flat stones, chattered to itself; a bird piped in the tree overhead, and then came fluttering down into the open space. It looked with bright, quick eyes at Ellen, sitting in her miserable heartsick silence, and then hopped across the little glade, where the shadows lay like a lattice upon moss and grass, and began to peck at the scraps of food on the plates. Through the bushes Ellen could see Edward’s ears twitching now and then, and the rusty canvas of the cart. Into the wood quiet came the sharp sound of trotting hoofs, and then an instant’s glimpse of a man on horseback. It brought her heart up into her throat. He came, whoever he was, from that world which she had left. Oh, if she could catch him, — if she could make him take her home!
The inevitable moment had come.
The peddler slept tranquilly. Silently, like a little thief, Ellen rose, and stepped stealthily across the grass. The bird, startled, dashed up into the greenery overhead, but the peddler never stirred. As she gained the road, Edward, standing with patient bowed head, cocked one gray ear at the rustle of the leaves, but, not seeing his master, drowsed again.
Ellen, terrified lest she might hear a step crashing through the underbrush behind her, fled like a hare down the road, in the direction in which the man on horseback had gone; she would catch him, she said to herself, and then beg him to take her home. She ran, poor child, until it seemed as though the beating in her throat would suffocate her; and then, exhausted, she fell down on the grass beside the road. She had run, of course, a very short distance, but she thought she had covered miles. As soon as she could get her breath, she remembered that if she stopped, the peddler, assisted by Edward, would quickly overtake her. And yet she could not run any farther. If she crept behind the bushes at the roadside, he surely could not see her, should he pass ? So site pushed through some underbrush, climbed a fence, and reached a wide meadow. There, lying down on the grass near some bushes, she said to herself that she would rest a little while, and then start again for home.
The child was so tired that scarcely had her head touched the grass than she fell fast asleep, — too soundly to hear the peddler calling her anxiously, his voice pathetic with mortification that he had let her slip away from him; too soundly, also, even to dream of the dismay and anxiety in the home she had left.
Mrs. Dale’s headache, which had kept her awake nearly all night, yielded after she had had her coffee and sent her message to Ellen, and faded into an exhausted slumber which lasted until noon. Betsey Thomas, who at first was full of pity for the naughty child, began to resent her obstinacy, fearing that presently she herself would be blamed for a contretemps which would not have come about save for her well-meant interference. This half-frightened resentment made her keep to herself the fact that Ellen’s dinner-tray had not been touched. “I ain’t a-goin’ to be blamed if Ellen sets up to be obstinate about her victuals, ” she said to herself sulkily. But a little later, when she caught a glimpse of Effie Temple wandering about in the orchard, her sense of justice, to say nothing of her desire to excuse herself, made her say to the cook that she “had a mind to tell Mrs. Dale that that hateful little girl put our Ellen up to all her badness.” She “believed that in her soul,” she said; and she added also her opinion that Effie was “just hanging around to see if she could n’t see our Ellen.”
She was quite right. Effie’s first interest in the adventure had worn off, and she was getting frightened; she tried to comfort herself by the assurance that as soon as it was all “found out” she would say, “I told her not to go!” She had a faint hope that Ellen’s resolution had given out and she had returned, so sent a note over the “telegraph,” which had often borne more harmful messages; but there was no answer. Then she grew angry; she said to herself that she hated Ellen. Thoroughly frightened, she felt a frantic desire to blame some one, so it was a comfort to see Lydia Wright walking sedately along the gravel path away from Mrs. Dale’s front door.
Effie hailed her imperiously, but with some mystery in her manner. “Stop! I want to speak to you,” she said.
It was half past two. Lydia, looking like a little clove pink in her white sunbonnet, which pressed her shining curls close against her round cheeks, had come over to say to Mrs. Dale, “Mother’s love, and may Ellen come and spend the afternoon and take tea? ” She stopped at Effie’s command. “I came to invite Ellen to tea,” she explained, nervously rolling the strings of her sunbonnet, “but Betsey Thomas says she is n’t allowed to go out.” Euphemia Temple had never seemed to Lydia more alarming.
“I guess Betsey Thomas does n’t know what she’s talking about. And I guess if you ’d been nicer to Ellen it would n’t have happened.” Effie was almost in tears. Lydia was too astonished to defend herself or ask an explanation. “If you ’ll promise never to tell, I ’ll tell you something,” Effie ended; “will you promise?”
“Yes,” Lydia answered. “Only — don’t! ” Effie’s imperative agitation terrified her so that her only thought was flight.
“You ’ve got to hear; it ’s your fault, ” Effie said sternly. “Promise you ’ll never tell ? ”
“I promise,” said Lydia, shaking.
“Say, ‘Hope I may die if I do.’”
“ ‘Hope I may die,’ ” Lydia stammered.
“Ellen has run away ! ”
Lydia gazed at her with horrified eyes, speechless.
“You promised not to tell,” Effie threatened.
“I — I — I won’t, ” said Lydia.
“Now go home!” cried Effie, with sudden rage. “If you ’d been nicer to her, she wouldn’t have— It’s your fault! ”
Lydia turned and fled, appalled at the news and at the responsibility of knowledge, but never doubting that she must keep her promise.
Effie, meantime, experienced no relief from her burst of confidence.
That there was something on her mind might have been guessed, had it not been that other members of the family seemed to have something on their minds, also: her aunt was nervous and absorbed; her mother plainly irritable.
“Everybody ’s crazy!” Effie declared when Miss Dace assured her that she had never seen such a troublesome little girl, — “everybody’s crazy! You make such a fuss about your old declensions; and aunty says she is going down to mail a letter, instead of sending Jim to do it, and coming out to play croquet with me; and mamma scolds if you look at her! ”
“Why don’t you go and see why Ellen wasn’t here this morning? ” Miss Dace suggested wearily.
“Oh, I hate everybody!” Effie responded, with angry irrelevance. Then she tried again to coax her aunt to play croquet.
“I can’t, Effie, dear,” Miss Jane said nervously. “I must go down to the post-office.”
“You said that an hour ago; you could have mailed sixty letters by this time. Why don’t you make Jim mail your old letter? or why don’t you go, and come back? You just talk! Goodness!” said Effie, and stamped, for want of any better way of expressing her angry fright.
“Why don’t I go? ” Miss Jane said to herself. Her letter was stamped and addressed, though with nothing more definite as a direction than “Philadelphia.” “There’s nothing really personal in it,” she reasoned, thinking of its contents. “I will mail it! ” and she started for the village. She had done as much as start early in the morning, but she had turned back, and the letter was still unmailed. “I ’ll wait and send it by the evening stage, ” she said. A dozen times, that day, she put her hand into her pocket to destroy this harmless missive, but each time she touched it she said, “No, there is no harm in sending it; and probably it won’t reach him, anyhow. And if it does, it does n’t mean anything. No, there is no harm in sending it. But I won’t mail it until tonight.”
Four o’clock came, and Miss Jane Temple said to herself, “It must not go; I 'll tear it up.” She took the letter out and looked at it. “No, not yet. But I won’t mail it; it would be foolish,” she sighed to herself, “and it would never reach him.”
Jane Temple’s heart beat so fast that she had a suffocated feeling, and went to the window for a breath of air. Effie was on the croquet ground. Miss Jane could hear the sharp click of the balls, as the child knocked them idly about. Somehow, the sight of Effie sent a wave of resolution to her heart. There was no reason why she should not send her letter, why she should not have a happiness of her own, have friends and interests of her own. “I have a right to my own life! ” she said to herself again. She had a curious instant of something like hate for all this comfortable household. She opened the bottom drawer of the chest of drawers and took out the green crape shawl. As she touched it she felt suddenly courageous, and she put it over her shoulders with the thrill of one who buckles on his armor for a battle; and then she started for the post-office. Perhaps it was the green shawl, lying like a vine upon her aunt’s white dress, that caught Effie’s eye, for she ran across the lawn to Miss Jane’s side.
“Why, you ’ve got that horrid shawl on! " she commented. She had to say something disagreeable or burst into tears. “It’s hideous! ”
“Don’t, Effie,” returned Miss Jane coldly, “don’t hang on my hand that way. ”
“A here are you going? Oh, how horrid everything is! ”
“To the village; you had better go and get dressed for tea.”
“I ’m going to the village with you.”
Miss Jane was silent. She wished she could make Effie obey her, but she was too exhausted to try.
“Why don’t you go to see Ellen? ” she said; she made up her mind not to mail the letter in Effie’s presence.
Effie opened her lips to reply, and then stopped and stamped her foot. “I — I — I hate her! ” she said. The tears rushed to her eyes.
“Why, Effie ! how can you speak so? Have you and Ellen quarreled ? You should never say you hate any one.”
“I hate, hate, hate her!” Effie sobbed, with all the pent-up fright of the day. “She ’s a bad, horrid girl; she’s run away from home. Oh, my! is n t she wicked? I should n’t think you’d want me to know such a girl! ”
Miss Jane Temple, with her fingers touching the letter in her pocket, stood still with astonishment. “What do you mean ? ”
“It is n’t my fault. I told her not to. I said, ' Ellen, you ought n’t to run away.’ And she was mad because I would n’t go. She wanted me to run away, too! I wouldn’t do such at thing. She ’s a dreadful girl! I don’t want to live in this awful hole of an Old Chester when she comes back.”
Miss Jane took Effie’s hands from her fare and held them in hers. “Tell me every single thing,” she commanded. And Effie told her version.
Thus it happened that it was nearly five o’clock before Miss Jane Temple, hurrying through the garden, came to disturb the peace of the Dale household. She could not stop to mail the letter, and her pang of disappointment showed her how entirely she had meant to do it, despite all those hesitations.
Mrs. Dale had left her bedroom late in the afternoon: her head was better, but her heart ached. No word from Ellen ! What should she do with this rebellious child ? Her anxiety was full of self-examination. Wherein had she failed, that this extraordinary defiance was possible? She did not feel strong enough to read; nor could she put her mind upon anything except this present pain, which held in it all the pain of the past, all the old puzzle and despair. “He had this same persistency in doing what he knew was wrong, ” she was thinking; “my remonstrances only made things worse. Perhaps he would have been better without me. Perhaps the child would be better without me. Oh, how can I meet my son in heaven, if I fail with Ellen!” Mrs. Dale’s hands were lying idle in her lap, and her face was full of the old misery and the new anxiety, when Miss Jane Temple came breathlessly through the hall, and stood a moment, hesitating, in the doorway.
“Mrs. Dale,” she began in an agitated voice, “I came to inquire about Ellen. Is she in her room? I” —
Mrs. Dale was annoyed. “Pray sit down, Jane. You are very good, I ’m sure. Ellen has been troublesome, and I think it best for her to keep her room.” She smiled formally. It was not the habit in Old Chester for one disciplinarian to criticise another; perhaps because they all followed the same methods.
“ I am sorry to seem to intrude,”returned Miss Jane, her words broken with haste, bhut Effie has just told me that — that —I fear you do not know Ellen’s frame of mind — she — Effie ” —
“My dear Jane,” said Mrs. Dale, sitting up very straight, a little color coming into her face, “you are needlessly concerned. And Euphemia? You know in Old Chester a child’s opinions are of no possible importance. I really think you make a mistake in encouraging her to talk.”
“Oh, dear Mrs. Dale, ” Jane Temple burst out, “Ellen has run away!” Miss Jane was crying and twisting her fingers together. “I 'm sure it ’s all Elbe’s fault; but oh, what shall we do ? ”
“Ellen ? Nonsense! ” Mrs. Dale almost laughed. “Now, that comes of listening to Elbe’s talk. Really, it is a mistake, It has never been the practice in Old ” —
“Indeed, I’m afraid something’s wrong. Won’t you send upstairs and see? Effie said she went away this morning at nine, and it ’s five o’clock! Oh, do send upstairs and see!”
In spite of herself Mrs. Dale felt suddenly apprehensive. “Of course, if you wish it. Will you touch that bell, if you please? But it is absurd. Your Euphemia might do such a thing, Jane Temple, but a child brought up in— Betsey Thomas, step upstairs, if you please, and tell Ellen that I say she may go out in the garden for a little walk before tea. Pray, Jane, control yourself; it is not proper that the child should see you so much agitated. ”
Miss Jane sank down upon the sofa, her breath coming quickly, and her eyes fixed upon the parlor door. Mrs. Dale, sitting very straight in her black gown, waited in annoyed silence. Really, Euphemia Temple was a most objectionable child; this acquaintance must end at once. It occurred to her, with a vague comfort, that Ellen’s naughtiness was owing to Effie’s influence.
“I’m sorry to say it, Jane,” she began majestically, “but I think I must not allow Ellen to see so much of Euphemia; Euphemia has been brought up so differently that ” —
A door slammed in the upper hall, there was a rush downstairs, and Betsey Thomas bounced into the parlor.
“ She ’s not there ! Ellen ’s not there! ”
The elderberry bushes under which Ellen had fallen asleep fringed a wide meadow. It had been mowed a week before, but when she awoke the faint glow in the west where the sun had set tinged its rough stubble, and made it look as soft as though it were still deep with timothy grass. She sat up, stiff and tired, and wondering for a moment where she was. Oh, yes, she remembered. The peddler! She listened, breathless, for the sound of wheels and Edward’s plodding step. But everything was still.
The yellow light behind the dark line of the hills was melting into violet dusk; the dim shadows which had stretched across the field when she first opened her eyes were fading and lading into the great soft shadow of night. Everything seemed to be asleep, and she, of all the big world, awake. She listened till her own pulses jarred the stillness. Not even a rustling leaf spoke beside her; the soundless dark held her in its centre. Then, suddenly, at her feet, a cricket chirped, and the silence, like a sphere of clear black glass, shivered and broke! She heard the grass where she had been lying lift itself with a brushing sound; she heard the snap of a twig under foot; she caught the soft nestling of some sleeping birds in the bushes behind her: the spell of silence was broken, and she drew a free breath. How late it was! The thought of her little bedroom Hashed into her mind, — her white bed, Betsey waiting to take the candle away; a wave of homesickness made her feel faint. She must go home; she must run; it would soon be too dark to see where she was going.
But in that long, deep sleep she had lost her hearings. She started, keeping in the fields that skirted a road which led, she thought, to Old Chester; on and on she walked, farther and farther from home. Once or twice, coming upon a marsh or a wide shallow run, she turned into the road; but she ran then, quivering with fear until she could get back into the meadows, for there the tranquil hush of night did not frighten her. Once, a faint glitter in a dark pool caught her eye, and, glancing up through the birch-trees, she saw the moon looking at her between the leaves. After that, shadows began to grow out of the darkness, and the field glimmered like a silver shield ; under the trees black caverns seemed to open and yawn ; perhaps there were dragons in them ! She instantly flew out into the open moonlight, her heart heating fiercely; she knew there were no dragons in the shadowy lairs, but that did not keep her from being horribly afraid of them. After a while, walking on, well away from trees and hushes and shadows, she grew less frightened ; she became vaguely conscious of the companionship of the kind, silent earth, with its intimate sky clasping it like a dark hand jeweled by the moon and stars. A sense of comfort and security came over her, —an ebbing of identity; fear and penitence fell away from her like heavy weights. It was as though the little human creature vibrated with the sonorous rhythmic march of the whole, and could not know so small a thing as self.
Once she lay down, and looked up into the clear, moon-flooded depths, and into the broad, kind face of the moon itself. She thought that children who could lie on their mothers’ knees must feel as she did now, lying here in the warm, still fields, lying on the earth’s friendly lap, safe and warm and cared for, swinging among the stars! She was sure she should be taken care of; she wondered, with not too keen an interest, what the moon was saying to the listening earth? She sighed with comfort. It seemed to her that she would never get up, but lie here, like a little mound, that would melt somehow into the field and the grass. Perhaps it was the pagan in the child, this instinct for the Great Mother. Very simply, without knowing why, there in the silence and peace she knelt down and laid her cheek against the earth, and kissed it softly. Then she rose and trudged on in the moonlight.
But suddenly she was stung into alertness: a house loomed up ahead of her. Then, instantly, she was afraid! Her heart pounded as, giving one flying look of terror over her shoulder, she ran towards it. A picket fence inclosed the farmhouse from its wider garden, making that small door-yard which country people love. Ellen had a glimpse of the room within: a woman beside a table, sewing; a man stretched out in a rocking - chair, asleep; the top of a cradle rooking drowsily to and fro. It was not an especially attractive interior, but it was human, and, seeing it. Kllen knew once more that she was disobedient and desolate, and with her self-knowledge came back the misery which she had lost in the fields. The hope of being protected and taken home made the weary child sob with joy. She lifted the latch of the gate, when, suddenly, a dog barked! Ellen’s heart stood still; she tried to cry out, but her voice was so husky with fear that it did not seem to be hers. That was a terrible moment. A strange voice from her own lips ? Who was she ? A beggar at a farmer’s gate, nothing to eat, no plare to sleep, and a dog barking at her ! She heard the creature running, bounding towards her from the farther side of the house, and she turned and flew back towards the road. The steps followed her, and a quick volley of barks, and then a threatening growl. Ellen sobbed aloud as she ran; it seemed to her that she could not breathe, and she must stop running, and the dog was close upon her! She caught her foot, and fell headlong on the rough stubble. She was too exhausted to rise. Every instant she thought she should feel the dog’s breath on her neck; but he did not come. Yet it was some moments before she had the courage or the strength to rise. She had bruised her knee on the stiff, newly mown grass, and it hurt her, which gave her the relief of a new misery.
She started again, still keeping in the fields, and walked nearly a mile before she saw another light gleam out. She stopped and looked at it. There was a barn near the road, and some haystacks, and a stone’s throw up on the hillside a big balconied farmhouse, with alight in one window; it stood at the top of grape-trellised terraces, with its flagged pavement under the lowest balcony, and its comfortable Dutch exterior inviting her. How the child longed to go and knock at the door! But she only stood and looked at it with anguished eyes. The remembrance of the dog was too dreadful to let her think for a moment of going any nearer, and yet she could not go quite away. She wondered if a dog at the house could hear her breathing down here by the barn ? As she looked towards the spot of cheerful light, it went out. That meant that the farmer and his wife had gone to bed; the house was perfectly dark. Ellen turned and looked at the barn; she might go in there? If she could once get in, no dog could hurt her. The cows and horses seemed like friends to the desolate child. But when, very softly, she put her hands on the big doors, she found they were barred on the inside; she heard a long-drawn sigh from within, and a muffled stamp. Oh, how comfortable they were, the cows and horses! She leaned her cheek against the door for a long time and listened; she could not bear to go away from these friendly creatures and he alone again. Once or twice she caught the soft, deep breaths, and once she heard a horse biting at his crib, and a cow striking her horns against the stanchions.
After a while Ellen remembered the haystacks behind the barn, and thought she would go to one of them and rest a little, and then, if she could get her courage up to the point of going off alone into the night, start once more for home.
It took some minutes to reach the yard behind the barn, for she stopped at every step to listen; but once there, she was glad to sit down and lean against the soft, sweet hay of one of the stacks; she even dug out a little shelter for herself, and cuddled into the small hole to keep warm, for the August chill had crept into the night.
The full, still pour of the moon filled the barnyard with vaporous light, in which the shadow of the haystack lay like a black pool. The pain of fright still gripped Ellen’s heart; and when she noticed that the pasture in front of her was bare and free from rocks, and thought that it would be a good place for fairies to dance in, she banished the fancy with the assertion that she must say her prayers; perhaps God would take care of her if she said her prayers, but if she thought about fairies he might be angry.
she began to repeat rapidly, squeezing her eyes tight shut,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
God bless grandmother, and make me a good girl, ” — then all the little form which she had used ever since she knew how to speak. It meant nothing to Ellen; the kiss in the field had said it all.
As she grew warmer here in the hay, fatigue blurred her fear. Vague thoughts of the fairies came unchallenged to her mind, and dim recollections of her old life, lived so long, long ago, — her grandmother’s step on the stairs while she had been waiting to escape to the summer-house to meet Effie. Effie ? Why, she had forgotten her! It had all happened so long ago. Yesterday? The word had no meaning to her. Then she drifted into thoughts of the garden, and the sunshine, and the hollyhock ladies; she remembered the little teas on the side porch, when her grandmother had allowed her to invite Lydia, and had had cakes baked to fit her small dishes. Yes, she and Lydia had played together, long, long ago; they used to meet, by the poplar-trees, or swing, and talk, and watch the horsehairs turning into snakes. Suddenly the ache and misery of homesickness surged up in that spot below the breastbone where the soul seems to suffer. Ellen cried hopelessly; she could not imagine that she should ever be at home again.
the pool of shadow in front of the haystack lessened, rippling back and back like a falling tide. The moon had climbed up behind the barn, and began to appear over the shoulder of the stack. She had not the same friendly expression that she had worn in the fields; her face seemed smaller, and she looked coldly down on the child’s grief. Ellen pulled out some more hay and burrowed further into her little shelter.
Into the midst of her hopelessness came the sound of a wagon rattling along the road. Ellen saw the light of a swinging lantern, and heard voices, but no words. “It must be robbers ! ” she thought, pressing in against the hay to hide herself. It never occurred to her that it might be some one searching for her.
After a while she slept, and then awoke with a start. There was a soft, slow step in the barnyard. The pool of shadow before her had ebbed quite away; the indifferent moon was goingdown, sinking behind the hill; there was a mist lying like white gauze over the ground. Again that step, and the strange, shuffling noise. Ellen hardly dared breathe. It was not like a dog. All was quiet for a few moments, and then — again! Something seemed to loom up in the misty darkness, something big and black ; something which sighed, close to Ellen’s face! Perhaps the child fainted for a moment, in her ghastly fright, for there seemed to be a gape of vacancy; and then she knew that it was a cow, whose gentle and astonished eyes looked into hers, and who drew back with a frightened snort.
After that Ellen was awake for a long time; the moon had quite gone, and all the world was wrapped in crystal dark. The cow did not disturb her again, although she heard the big creature moving about. Far off, a dog barked. “There must be robbers! ” she said to herself, growing cold with fear. Then everything was still, until from some distant farm came, faint and thin through the darkness, a faraway cockcrow! Ellen thought, with a leap of her heart, that it must be nearly morning; but the night still pressed close about her. Oh, would it never end ? Again she slept, and again awoke with a start.
The sun was up; above the hill the sky rippled with small white clouds, and then soared into an arc of smiling blue. The barnyard was full of chickens, and there were four cows standing about, chewing their cud, and waiting to be milked; but right in front of her, staring, open-mouthed, was a boy in blue overalls, with a bucket of foaming milk in each hand. He had no hat on, and his shock of pale hair seemed to be standing on end with astonishment.
“Oh, may I have a drink of milk ? ” said Ellen. She sat up, gazing with anguished expectancy at the milk. The boy nodded, without speaking; he put down one bucket, and lifted the other to the child’s lips. Her hands were trembling with weakness, and she sobbed as she drank. She did not let go of the bucket when she stopped for breath; and then she drank again. “Oh, sir, I’ve no money,” she said, “but ” —
“ Who are you ? ” the boy interrupted. “Are you the little girl that’s lost from Old Chester?”
“May I have a little more milk? ” the child entreated. “My grandmother’ll pay you. Oh, grandmother ! ”
“If you come up to the house, they ’ll give ye some breakfast,” said the boy, his eyes big with excitement. “You’re the girl, I know you are! ” As he spoke he tilted the bucket for her to drink. “You come on up to the house, now. Don’t let on who you are till I tell ’em.”
“Oh, no, I ’m going home; oh, I ’m very much obliged to you, but I ’m going home,”said Ellen, rising, and beginning, with unsteady hands, to brush the hay from her hair and dress.
“ No, you ain’t, ” said the boy firmly, “not till I ’ve told the boss; now you just wait here.” With that he picked up his buckets and walked swiftly in the direction of the house. When, ten minutes later, he came running back with a big grizzled farmer, the little nest in the hay was empty.
The night which had brought such experiences to Ellen had been full of dismay and pain to her friends. Perhaps no one suffered more keenly than did poor little Lydia, lying awake with her dreadful secret. At ten o’clock, her mother found her staring into the darkness, and sobbing now and then under her breath.
“Tell mother what is the matter, Lydia,” said Mrs. Wright, who had been careful not to let the child know of the anxiety concerning Ellen. But Lydia had promised “not to tell, ” and she kept her word. Effie, however, having given her information, and assured everybody who would listen to her, half a dozen times over, that she had “told Ellen not to,” — Effie was calmly sleeping. Messengers were hurried in every direction. Miss Jane Temple stayed with Mrs. Dale until almost midnight, trying to emulate her calmness, but seeing the elder woman’s face grow white and haggard as the slow hours found Ellen still away from home. Betsey Thomas’s grief was unfeigned, and her anger at herself, Mrs. Dale, Effie Temple, and the peddler — who had by that time appeared and told all he knew — expended itself in sharp words about every one but Ellen; for the real offender she had nothing but incoherent expressions of affection and of praise. Mrs. Dale was silent. What her thoughts, her self-reproaches, her most honest and vindicating judgments may have been no one knew; not even Miss Jane, sitting beside her as the night wore on. Only when that flush of dawn came which looked down on Ellen in the barnyard, Mrs. Dale lost. her pain in an hour’s restless sleep.
And by that time, fleeing from the boy who had given her the milk, Ellen was walking swiftly in the direction of her home. This was really only a fortunate chance, for the child had been so turned around, in all these experiences, that she had no idea where Old Chester lay. Once she dared to stop a man who was driving a clattering and clanging mowing-machine along the road, to ask him if she were near Old Chester, only to be shocked to learn that she was twelve or fourteen miles away.
“I’m goin’ a good piece in that direction,” he observed slowly, neither speculation nor kindness in his stolid, harmless face. “I got a field to mow. An’ you kin stand up here in front of me, if you want to.”
Ellen was only too glad to avail herself of his offer. Her mind was fastened with such intensity upon the idea of getting home that she felt no fear of the mowing-machine or even of a strange man; had it been the peddler who had made this offer, she would have accepted it! This concentration kept her silent; she volunteered no information about herself, and the man asked no questions. When at last he drew his horses up before a lane into which he must turn to reach the field to be mowed, he only said briefly, “Yer not more ’n nine miles off now, sissy.” Ami Ellen said, “Yes, sir; thank you, ” and plodded on alone.
She passed several people after that, and one or two carts, but no one offered her a ride; one man drew up his horse and looked at her curiously, and seemed about to speak, hut Ellen’s resolute little face, set towards Old Chester, apparently satisfied him that she could not be the lost child of whom he had heard rumors an hour before. It seemed to Ellen, having wakened at five, that it must be at least twelve when she sat down by the roadside to rest; but really it was only half past eight, and a traveler who had gotten off a train at Mercer three hours before had had ample time to walk leisurely along in the direction of Old Chester and overtake her. Ellen, dozing with fatigue, opened her eyes to see this traveler standing before her. He had a stick over his shoulder, on which he had slung a traveling-bag. He was a little man, with anxious eyes and a timid air.
“Why, it can’t be little Ellen? ” he exclaimed, his face blank with astonishment.
Ellen stared at him, her eyes dull with misery; then a flash of recognition sent the blood surging into her pale face, and she burst out into passionate crying.
“Why, little Ellen Dale! There, there! Don’t, dear, don’t! Where is your grandmother, or Betsey Thomas? Are you alone, little Ellen ? There, now, there! ”
“Oh, Mr. Tommy! ” the child said, “oh, take me home! Won’t you please take me home ? ”
Mr. Tommy, distressed almost to tears, looked this way and that for aid, while he tried to comfort her. “Yes, my little girl, —yes, yes, directly, You shall go home directly. But how did you come here ? Where is — anybody ? You are not alone, little Ellen ? ”
Mr. Tommy Dove lifted the stick from his shoulder and rested his bag carefully on the ground.
“I ’ll —I ’ll tell you —about it,” she said, trying to speak, but shaken by long-pent-up tears. “I ’ll tell you all about it, if you ’ll just take me home. Oh, Mr. Tommy, I ran away, — I ran away from home!” The poor child rocked back and forth, and moaned in unchildlike grief.
As for Mr. Dove, he was so far from a proper perception of discipline that he took the little penitent into his arms, and said, “Well, dear, there, it ’s all right, it’s all right. I know the feeling myself,” said Mr. Dove.
But Ellen had reached at last that clear-sighted repentance which knows excuses to be false and weak, and will none of them, —the only repentance which has power to turn the sinner from darkness to light.
“Oh, no,” she said faintly. “I ’m a bad, bad girl. May be God will forgive me some day, but grandmother never can,” wailed Ellen, with no knowledge of sarcasm, but realizing instinctively how much harder it is to make one’s peace with one’s kind than with Infinite Goodness; and then she tried to tell her story.
“Effie Temple was going to run away with me. But she was better than I was; she would n’t. She said Miss Jane wanted her to have a dress fitted, and—and so I came by myself. And won’t you please take me home? Oh, I want to go home ! ”
“Yes, yes, yes, my dear.” Mr. Tommy soothed her. “There, we ’ll go right home now. And — and you say Miss Jane’s still in Old Chester? Well, I knew it. I thought so, but — I made up my mind to come back. It was weak to stay away.” Apparently Mr. Tommy was still weak, for the color came and went painfully in his elderly face. “And is her brother there, too? ” he questioned.
“Dick?” said Ellen, wiping her eyes. “Oh, no ; he went away a good while ago.”
“I meant”—explained the other, “I referred to — to Mr. Temple, her brother.”
“Oh, yes, he’s there. Effie said her papa loved her, and so she would n’t run away. But my grandmother does love me, so she does. At least she did. She won’t any more, —oh, never any more! ”
Mr. Dove seemed to reflect; he took off his hat, and then put it on again thoughtfully. “We must get a conveyance, ” he announced. As he spoke, a woman with a basket on her arm passed, and looked at Ellen.
“Are you the Little girl that was lost ? ” she said, pausing.
“ I — ran away, ” Ellen answered truthfully, hanging her head with shame.
“She’s just going home, ma’am, now,” Mr. Dove broke in, his mild voice full of comfort and sympathy. “Can you tell me where I can hire a vehicle of any kind ? ”
The woman considered. “There’s the Smith farm a little piece up the road. Guess they ’d lend you their carryall ? ”
Mr. Tommy hurried in the direction the woman had indicated, leaving Ellen to her care, and returning in a surprisingly short time with a battered and dusty carriage drawn by a lively young sorrel horse. There was a boy with him, who would, Mr. Tommy explained, bring the carryall back again.
Ellen was glad to creep into it. Her eyes were downcast and her cheeks burning with shame, for the questions the woman had asked her during Mr. Dove’s absence opened up depths of mortification of which she had never dreamed. Her despair had been too dreadful for the smaller pain of mortification. But now she bent her head down sidewise and looked out at the fields past which the sorrel horse was hurrying them at a fine rate ; she supposed Mr. Tommy would ask the same dreadful questions. But Mr. Tommy seemed as conscious and embarrassed as she. He made no reference to her wickedness, and was silent so long that Ellen grew tremulous with apprehension; his reproof, when it came, would be terrible, she thought, cowering.
“I recollect,” he said at last, coughing a little behind his hand, “I recollect Miss Effie Temple. She is her niece.”
Ellen drew a long breath. “Yes, sir,” she said vaguely. They had just passed a signpost that said “Old Chester 7 miles.”
“Miss Effie did not, I think, like me,” Mr. Tommy observed. “I did not notice it at first. She was only a little girl, so I did not notice it. But, upon reflection, I felt that she did not.
I felt that she was glad when — I was called away from Old Chester.”
Ellen made an effort to seem interested. “But Miss Jane was sorry, Mr. Tommy, when you went away. Effie told me so.”
Mr. Tommy started. He put his hand upon the door-knob."Oh, no, no, little Ellen; you are mistaken. I think perhaps I ’ll not proceed to Old Chester. I think, little Ellen, upon reflection ” — His voice wavered so that Ellen gazed at him in astonishment.
“Why, Effie said so, Mr. Tommy,” she assured him; and then the connection in which Effie had said it came back to Ellen’s mind, and the child blushed as violently as Mr. Tommy himself.
The apothecary, however, struggled to regain his composure. “Yes, yes, I see. Always kind, always kind. Yes, I understand. Sorry? Of course, — for me. But I believe I am not ready to come back — yet. I ’ll — I ’ll wait a little longer. I find it is difficult to return. I — I think ” —
“Are n’t you going to take me home, Mr. Tommy? ” Ellen interposed, alarmed at the prospect of being dropped by the roadside.
Mr. Tommy drew a long breath. “I ’ll take you home, little Ellen; yes, I ’ll do that; no harm to do that. But you don’t understand ; no, you could n’t understand. And yet I have sometimes thought that the other child did.”
“Effie?” said Ellen boldly. “She knew all about it, Mr. Tommy. She said Miss Jane was mad because you went away. She thought you 'd come back, Effie said; but you didn’t, and she was mad. Are you going back now, Mr. Tommy?”
Mr. Dove fell into the corner of the carriage, too deep in thought to answer her,
“Old Chester 3 miles,” a signboard declared,and Ellen forgot Mr. Tommy’s interests in her own. Twice they were stopped by excited voices hailing them from the roadside.
“Oh, there she is!” “Oh, where were you, child? How did you get lost? ” And when the first relief and excitement had been expressed, there came astonished exclamations that it was Mr. Tommy who had brought the lost child home.
“Hallo, hallo! ’’said one man. “Did you find her, Tommy, or did she find you ? ” He was glad to be facetious to hide his agitation. Ellen had made a sensation in Old Chester.
Once they stopped long enough to let Miss Minns climb on to the step and lean into the carryall to give Ellen a sounding kiss. Miss Minns was the postmistress, and was tall and pale, and had the reputation of being cross. But now she was almost as gentle as Miss Jane Temple, except in her shrill surprise upon seeing who was escorting the lost child.
By this time Ellen could scarcely sit still. “Oh, grandmother, grandmother! ” she was whispering to herself.
At Mrs. Dale’s gate Mr. Tommy made a gesture to the lad who was driving them. “Boy,” he said, “you can stop. Here’s your money. But drive the little girl on up to the house. I shall get out here, little Ellen, but he will drive you in.”
Mr. Dove got out of the carryall as he spoke, but Ellen instantly followed him. “I ’d rather walk with you, Mr. Tommy,” she said in a frightened voice. A moment later, with wildly heating hearts, the apothecary and the child found themselves standing before the iron gates of Mrs. Dale’s garden.
Beyond, a little farther up the lane, was Mr. Henry Temple’s place. Mr. Tommy looked towards it with a wistful sort of fright, and yet a quiet dignity, too; for Thomas Dove, as Mrs. Dale said, had seen something of the world since that miserable night when Henry Temple ordered him from his house. Even as he looked. Mr. Temple’s gate swung open, and Miss Jane came with hurrying, anxious steps down the road. She was hastening to Mrs. Dale’s, hoping that she might hear some tidings of Ellen.
Mr. Tommy, fumbling with the clanging iron latch of the gate, looked about him a little wildly, as though uncertain in which direction to flee; but Ellen turned towards her with a cry. “Oh, Miss Jane, I’m here! Oh, where’s grandmother? ”
Miss Jane, with eyes only for Ellen, ran towards them, and caught the little girl in her arms. “Oh, Ellen!” she said. Her kind eyes were running over. And then she looked up to see who had brought the child back. “What! Mr. Dove! " Jane Temple put out her hand, and then turned away, and then looked back again. “Run, Ellen, run to your grandmother, my dear,” she said faintly.
But Ellen had not waited to be told. She slipped from Miss Jane’s arms, and ran as hard as she could towards that distressed and anxious house, where, worn from the night, Mrs. Dale was waiting and praying for tidings of the one human creature that she loved. Ellen, blind with tears, went stumbling up the front steps, and saw, within the darkened parlor, the figure of her grandmother pacing with insistent composure up and down, up and down. How she reached her, how her little heart found words, how the agony of all those hours ended, the child never knew.
As for Miss Jane, she seemed to waver, as she stood there in the morning sunshine before her old lover. Should she go — or stay? Should she follow Ellen —or her heart?
“Oh, Mr. Dove,”she said, breathing quickly and looking away from him, but feeling his eyes commanding hers, and so looking back at him again, — “oh, Mr. Dove! I haven’t seen you this summer. Are you well ? ” The night of anxiety had been too great a strain; her self-possession was gone. “I hope you are well,” she repeated, very much agitated. She put her hand in her pocket, and seemed to crush something with nervous haste.
Perhaps her agitation calmed Mr. Tommy. He took her left hand and held it in his. “I felt I must come back. May I stay, Miss Jane? Will you let me stay? You will not say I must go away again? We have our own lives to live. Please tell me I may stay, ma’am! Oh, I hope you ’re not angry that I have come hack! ” “Angry?" said Miss Jane, her lips trembling and her eyes smiling. “Oh, why should I be, Mr. Dove? Why — I ” — There was a crumpled letter in her hand, and she put it up to her face to hide her tears, and then laid it in his hands with a gesture as lovely and as impulsive as a girl’s. " I 'm glad you’ve come back. You must never leave me any more ! ”
They had both forgotten Ellen.