IT was the anniversary of little Harry’s birthday, and he was dead. He had died seven years before, when he was three years old; and to-day, as every day, his silver mug and porridge-bowl stood ready upon the table at his place, and his high chair, with the plump little blue silk pillow in it and the bib dangling from one of the knobs, stood ready too, pushed back a little from the table as if Harry were coming next minute.
Mrs. Addington’s eyes were heavy. She tossed a letter across the table towards her daughter, without other comment than a fretful downward curve of the lips, and listlessly selected another envelope from among her morning’s mail. The mother and daughter were alone, sitting opposite each other at the table. The house was very quiet, and the child’s empty place seemed to make the stillness more perceptible.
“ I don’t see anything remarkable, or new, or interesting about this ‘ case,’ ” said the girl, looking up from the letter questioningly.
“ No,” her mother replied in a plaintive tone, “ no ; it is only immediate.”
“ Do you mean you would like me to take it ? I thought you enjoyed the work ! ”
“ The ' case ’ seems to be so inconveniently urgent,” said Mrs. Addington, “ I suppose it ought to be attended to to-day ; the woman is in distress. But I can’t to-day, — no, I can’t ! Nobody could expect me to.” Tears had welled up into the heavy eyes, and her voice grew painfully thin as she continued : “Not on Harry’s birthday ! ”
“ Oh, mother! is it ? ” cried the girl remorsefully. “ Of course you can’t. I ’ll go and see the woman. I’m sorry ! I ought to have known. Dear little brother! ”
She got up as she spoke, and stopped an instant to press her cheek against her mother’s hair, then left the room.
“ Nobody with any heart would expect me to attend to such things to-day,” murmured the bereaved mother, “ My baby, my little darling boy ! ” and she held the blue pillow hungrily against her face.
The other woman’s baby had been dead three days, the Charities’ letter said, and she had nothing to eat.
Grace Addington’s day was full, and she was obliged to send an excuse to her literary club in order to make the time in which to visit her mother’s charity subject. She felt a little bored, as she already had three cases of her own on hand, and this was not her day for attending to such matters ; but it would relieve her mother.
Miss Addington was pretty, and would have looked quite like some society girls in Life if it had not been for her serious Boston finish. She was distinctly conventional along all lines, and, living in an age when conventionality seems to be growing rare among young women, she experienced a proper pride in her own exclusiveness. When she prayed she did not say, “ O Lord, I am glad I am not as other girls are ! ” This particular form of prayer is no longer considered the correct thing among the best people.
Never having been to college, she had neither acquired a definite idea of the intellectual limitations of her family circle, nor developed a cult for Swinburne; and she always looked a little disgusted when the New Woman was mentioned. Bohemianism she tolerated good-naturedly since it had been conventionalized by journalists and painters, but personally she approved of chaperons. She never offered wine to young men, of course, but she did not care to join the Women’s Christian Temperance Union because — “ Oh, I don’t know ! Don’t yon think that some of the people who belong to it are just a little queer ? ” And yet, she was not really a snob ; she only behaved remarkably like one.
The young men made friends with her. They said she was “ a bit stiff at first, when you did n’t know her, and about dinner calls and such she rather made a fellow ' walk a chalk,’ but she was downright dependable underneath.” After all, for steady companionship, the young men do prefer an uneccentric girl, a girl who knows the proper thing and does it, and makes a man feel respectable because be happens to be talking with her. There are two other kinds of women, a better kind, perhaps, and a worse, who have not always the knack of making a man feel respectable.
She belonged to a great many clubs and classes, and as she believed, quite logically, that if every individual would be as good as he knew how to be, the millennium must approach more rapidly, she spent a large part of her time upon self-culture, in order to be able to add her increment of perfection to the coming kingdom. But, despite her exclusiveness and her individualism, she could not quite escape that feeling of responsibility towards one’s neighbor which is in the air to-day. It is a difficult feeling to translate into terms of complacency, but hers was a complacent spirit as yet, so she sharpened the feeling’s vague outlines by calling it a duty, and she laid it on her conscience along with whist classes and R. S. V. P.’s, and she joined the Charities’ Organization Association.
The purpose and methods of the Association were definite and such as she could understand. Her mother had been for years a valuable stereotyped member, and the work was along the line of the family tradition, which was benevolent. The girl slipped into the system without friction and performed her duties perfunctorily, questioning her “ subjects ” with an impersonal inquisitiveness which, according to the Board, left nothing to be desired.
It was late afternoon, an unusual time for charity visiting, when Grace set out on her errand. She studied the address of the new " case ” indifferently, noting the name of the well-known tenement street, but suddenly recalled a forgotten appointment, pulled the carriage - bell, and instructed the coachman to drive first to her dressmaker’s.
Mrs. Gannon, the charity case, moved sloth fully about her cellar room that afternoon, doing a great deal of nothing, and her pale little daughter sat by the grimy basement window peering up into the street.
“There ain’t been no new charity lady here for a long time since the last one,” said the child, as she moistened her forefinger and freshened the window-pane a little.
“They git tired, Lizzie,” her mother answered. “ I don’t blame ’em ; I’d git tired, too. They like a change, — somethin’ new. It’s human ; I’m not objectin’ to somethin’ new myself.”
A pampered society woman could not have conveyed a more complete idea of boredom than did Mrs. Gannon.
“ The baby’s buryin’ was new,” observed the child meditatively.
Her mother gave a kind of croak, and moved clumsily into the back part of the cellar.
“You ain’t got nothin’ new to eat, is you, mother ? ” the little girl asked presently in a repressed voice, as if she half hoped she might not be heard.
“ No, Lizzie, nor nothin’ old, neither. I guess there ought to be a charity lady come to-day, maybe, or to-morrow, if she gits round to it. Mis’ Doyle took a message for me to the ’sociation, — ‘ baby dead, great distitushin, immediate.’ That ’ll bring somebody.”
“ I wonder will it be a cross one, or an old one, or what ? There was one had pep’mints in her pocket, — do you ’member ? — but she got tired quicker ’n the rest. Thinkin’ pep’mints makes me sick to my stummick to-day. My, w’at a cold feelin’ ! ”
“ Fur the Lord’s sake, Lizzie, don’t go to havin’ one of your heart spells on the top of all this,” said Mrs. Gannon in a tone of weary protest.
“ ’T ain’t my heart. I know my heart. It’s only my stummick,” Lizzie explained reassuringly. “ Must be four o’clock. Wonder will the next one ast you the same w’at the last one did ? I knows most of them questions by heart; only their voices is different w’en they says ’em, and sometimes they folds they hands so — and sometimes they holds ’em so — and ” —
“ Shut up ! You ’re worse ’n a flyw’eel in a fact’ry to live with, Lizzie, your tongue’s that everlastin’ ! ”
Lizzie obediently stopped speaking aloud, but carried on a pantomime instead, moving her lips, nodding her head, folding and unfolding her hands, evidently in imitation of bygone charity ladies. Once, the mother, happening to glance at her, broke into a noisy laugh, whereupon the child laughed too, shamefacedly, but continued her mimicry.
“ Here’s a carriage, mother! ” she cried a moment later, “ and it’s a young one, — the youngest yet. My ! but I hope she ain’t got nothin’ sweet, ’cause I could n’t eat it.”
Pretty Grace Addington came into the cellar bedroom, and Mrs. Gannon drearily placed a chair for her, eying her watchfully beneath a slovenly air of indifference. Grace was accustomed to that furtive watchfulness; it was one of the things which had enabled her to grow impersonal towards her charity cases. “ You really can’t sentimentalize, you know, over people who are manifestly ready and waiting to overreach you.”
She stated the reason for her visit, and there was the usual non-committal “yes” from her “subject,” the usual distrustful pause, and then, “ This is not the first time you have applied for help, I believe ? ”
The pale little girl by the window nodded her head at this remark, as a stage manager might nod when an actor gives his speech in good form. After a moment she came and leaned against Grace’s knee, and looked up into her face with impressive childish gravity, as if weighing the pretty lady’s words and comparing them with something else in her own mind.
Grace patted the child’s hand absently, and made mental notes of the results of her inquiries : “ Husband arrested last week for drunkenness. Has periodic sprees. Out of work.”
“ How old was the baby ? ”
“ He was n’t but two ; and he always had something the matter with him.”
The self - possessed young visitor searched her mind for some suitable phrase of consolation. She had never before dealt with the subject of a recently dead baby, and she felt that a married woman might have handled the conversation more skillfully, but she was not embarrassed; she did not care enough about Mrs. Gannon’s opinion to feel embarrassed.
“We always have to realize that everything happens for the best,” she ventured to say.
“ Yes,” assented Mrs. Gannon,“ it was a great thing for him that he died.”
Her quiet tone gave Grace a shock, and she had a vision of her mother’s tear-stained, rebellious face ; but then, of course, that was different.
“ Did n’t you love him ? ” she asked, a tone of reproof in her inquiry.
The woman passed that question over in curious silence, and sat with her head bent sullenly, watching her right hand, which was down at her side on the bed, punching a pin back and forth in the quilt. Finally she replied, “ I could n’t of raised him, ever.”
Your little girl looks rather pale,” continued Grace.
“ I’m hungry,” explained the child, nestling closer. “ Mother said there’d be more to eat when Robbie was dead, but it’s a lie.”
“ She’s always one to speak out,” observed Mrs. Gannon apologetically. “ She’s sickly, but she’s smart. If she did n’t look so skinny we could get her a place to the theatre, children’s parts. She can take off anybody she sees.”
Lizzie continued to look at Grace steadily, and when her mother had finished speaking she put up her two little thin hands against the charity lady’s fur-trimmed jacket and said, “You’re awful pretty ! I did n’t know they ever had ’em as young as you for charity. Ain’t it ’most time for you to say now, ‘ I will make out an order for a few groceries, which will last until you find out about the place I have in mind ’ ? ”
Grace laughed. “ You funny little child ! ” she said. “ I ’m sorry you are hungry,” and, looking down into the solemn, sunken eyes, it suddenly occurred to her to do a most unconventional thing. Why not? On little Harry’s birthday, too! After all, it would not be so very queer to feed a little hungry child on her brother’s birthday, in memory of him. And it might divert her mother; the child was so odd. “ Would you like to come home with me to dinner ?” she asked.
Lizzie’s mouth dropped open, and she stared in astonishment a moment before she said, " That’s a bran new one ! None of the others ever ast that one before, sure ! ”
Grace Addington found herself unpleasantly warm.
“ But would you like to ? ” she repeated, moved by an absurd desire to propitiate this elfish child.
She ain’t fit,” said Mrs. Gannon regretfully ; " she don’t know about ways of livin’, — I keep her so close here. You ’d think sometimes she ain’t good sense, she talks so queer. I guess she better not. Do you — do you want to go, Lizzie ? ”
“ This is a sad day for my mother : it is my little brother’s birthday, and he is dead. I think Lizzie could divert her,” said Miss Addington. “ I have some shopping to do ; I shall come back in half an hour.”
She was a little frightened, for how could she ever feel sure of herself if she should begin to behave in this erratic manner ? She also dreaded what her mother might say about it.
Mrs. Gannon’s hands trembled as she polished Lizzie off, and buttoned a faded gingham apron over the grubby little woolen frock.
“ Ask them to cut your meat for you, and watch w’at the others do w’en they eat. And try and behave like a lady.”
“ ' Like a lady,’ ” repeated Lizzie gravely. “ I kin ; I done it ever so many times before. They ’re easy to take off. Shall you have somethin’ to eat, too, mother ? ”
“ Oh, I guess so.”
“ The pocket ain’t all tore out of my dress ; I 'll bring you somethin’ dry.”
Mrs. Gannon laughed, and drew her arm across her eyes. Then the carriage drove up, and she took Lizzie out to the door. Grace noticed that the furtive, hangdog look had quite gone from her face; she seemed to have forgotten to be on the watch, and as she lifted her little daughter into the carriage she said, “ God bless you, miss ! ”
During the drive Lizzie gave Grace a graphic description of her “ fits,” and how they all came from her heart, and she could n’t play out in the street with the other children because it made her “ jumpy,” and the doctor said he did not think she would live to grow up. Grace’s uneasiness increased so that she was strongly tempted to take the child back to her home, but Lizzie assured her that she did not feel like having a fit, and that she thought it was safe to go on. She told about “ the pep’mint lady.” and another “ lady ” who told “ mother ” Lizzie’s face was dirty, and “ mother ” said yes, she knew it.
“ I hope you won’t git tired very quick,” murmured the child at last.
A questioning spirit was beating his wings against Miss Addington’s heart, and before the end of the drive she had opened the door and let him in.
“ Oh, mother! ” she cried, coming into Mrs. Addington’s room fifteen minutes before dinner, “ I have done such a crazy thing ; I don’t know what you will say to me ! I have brought the woman’s little girl home to dinner. I thought you might like to have her here on Harry’s birthday, for Harry’s sake ; and she was hungry ; and she is so odd and interesting ; and oh dear, she has fits ! But I thought it was a happy thing to do, this special day, and I knew no one else was to dine with us : and she’s such a funny, pathetic little creature.”
“ My dear Grace,” said her mother, “ must I begin to feel now, after all these years, that I cannot depend upon you? And Will Potter has come to dinner. It was thoughtless of him,—he ought to have remembered the day ; but he is here now, and he is your father’s cousin, so we can’t excuse ourselves.”
“ He won’t matter,” said Grace ; “ he has queer ideas about democracy, and he takes charge of a boys’ club in some settlement or thing of that kind. He ’ll — I ’m afraid he ’ll think it very praiseworthy of us. Anyway, he won’t be half as shocked as — as I am, for instance.”
She laughed uneasily, and hurried to her own room, where she had left Lizzie looking at a picture-book.
“ What a nice clean mother you have ! ” the child exclaimed, a few minutes later, when she was being presented to Mrs. Addington in the library. Will Potter studied his cousin’s bookshelves.
“ And now, dear,” said Grace’s mother, after a feeble attempt to seem amused, “if you will ring for Jane, the little girl can go down to cook and have a nice hot dinner. I know she must be hungry.”
Why, of course, that was the proper thing to do ! Strange that it had not occurred to her before, Grace thought, with a sense of relief. But at the same time she felt inhospitable and ashamed, and she blushed.
“ Why not give us the pleasure of this little girl’s society at dinner, cousin Alice ? ” remarked young Potter casually. “ You say that cousin James has a downtown appointment, and I know you like to balance your table. I shall consider it a privilege to sit opposite little Miss Lizzie.”
“ Yes, mother,” said Grace in a low tone, blushing more painfully.
“ Very well, my dear. I merely thought”—
Dinner being announced at this moment, Will offered Mrs. Addington his arm, and her thoughts remained unspoken.
While the first course was being served Lizzie studied the dining-room and its occupants. Presently she pointed to the maid’s white muslin cap and asked, “ Why does she wear that ? ”
“ Because it is pretty,” replied Grace promptly.
The child looked from her young hostess to the maid, and back again. “ Then why don’t you wear one ? ” she asked.
“Jane, I wish you would see if Thomas has returned. I am expecting a note,” said Mrs. Addington.
“ But why don’t you ? ” Lizzie reiterated .
“ I ’ll tell you why,” answered Will Potter, leaning across the table and making an elaborate and mischievous pretense at a whisper : “ it s because she thinks she’s pretty enough without.”
“ I think so, too,” said Lizzie gravely.
That dinner was an unusual one for all concerned. For a while the child was entirely occupied in imitating the table manners of her friends as closely as was possible on the spur of the moment ; but when the dessert had arrived, and Mr. Potter was cracking and arranging her nuts for her, she remembered her mother’s injunction to “ try and behave like a lady, " and, putting her own interpretation on that injunction, she proceeded to carry it out in a startling manner. She folded her tiny hands in her lap, and, addressing Mrs. Addington in a gentle but authoritative tone, said, “ How many members of your family are earning money at present? ”
Mrs. Addington stared, and Grace looked alarmed. Perhaps the child was out of her head and going to have a “fit.”
Will Potter, perceiving that the little girl was laboring under some mistaken notion, asked genially, “ Might I reply by another question, and ask how many of your family are earning money at present ? ”
“ Nobody,” replied Lizzie, dropping into an imitation of her mother’s forlorn manner.
“ I think, cousin Alice,” said Will mischievously, “ that, considering the fact that cousin James has retired from business, you are safe in making a similar reply.”
“ Has your husband any bad habits ? ” inquired Lizzie solemnly.
This proved almost too much for young Potter. He would undoubtedly have disgraced himself and laughed aloud, had he not caught a glimpse of Grace’s face, and seen the look of pain, almost of terror, in her eyes. Seeing that look, he became suddenly grave.
“This child is impertinent ! ” said Mrs. Addington in a hard, angry voice. “ There is something behind that I do not understand. But I will not be insulted in my own house by those who depend upon my charity !
They all rose hurriedly, and Lizzie began to cry.
“ It was mother ! She told me, ' Behave like a lady,’ and they always say them things w’en they come to our house.”
Mrs. Addington had left the room, and a sudden silence fell upon Grace and Will.
Little Lizzie got very white, and for a few minutes Grace had visions of a possible “ fit; ” but the attack was light, and the faintness soon began to pass away.
Of course Mrs. Addington could not understand when her daughter tried to explain, but she consented to believe that the child had not meant to be insulting, because the fainting-spell was so evidently genuine.
Will Potter carried Lizzie upstairs, and, opening the door of Harry’s room by mistake, he laid her on Harry’s bed.
“ Not in here,” objected Grace, following him.
“ What’s the odds ? ” said Will. “ Shut the door. She’s played out, poor little tot, and the bed’s just right for her; it will do somebody some good for once. Harry would have let her, bless his cherub heart! ”
He leaned against the mantelpiece and watched Grace as she sat by the bed. Her eyes looked startled, and she was thinking rapidly.
Lizzie moved her head weakly, and let her eyes drift about the room. As often happens after fainting-spells, she was coming back to the world dominated by the last idea which had been in her mind before she lost consciousness : she was still intent upon trying to “ behave like a lady.”
“ How many people sleep in this room ? ” she asked. “ I hope not all of you ! ”
Harry’s room was large and luxuriously furnished. Only his mother ever touched the pretty toys and books, the chairs, and the dainty nursery appointments.
“No one sleeps here now,” faltered Grace. “My little brother lived in this room three years, and then he died.”
Lizzie stared about once more, and then, in quaint imitation of her mother’s stolid tone, she said primly, “ It was a great thing for him that he died.”
Will Potter could not see his cousin’s face, but he crossed the room hurriedly to stand beside her, and he thought he heard her say, “Yes, Lizzie, — I — I wonder if it was.”
They were all three very still for some time after this, but at last Will said, “If this young lady is rested, and you will ring for the carriage, I ’ll take her home. I 'm going down that way, anyhow, and I can explain the case better than the coachman would.”
“ Thank you,”Grace answered ; “ and you might say that — I ’ll come to-morrow and see how she is. Shall I ?”
“Well, yes,” said Will, pulling his mustache and pretending to reflect over the matter, “ I guess I would. It will seem friendly, don’t you know. Goodnight. Come, Miss Lizzie. Oh, what a weighty young person ! ”