WHEN Miranda Harlow, who lived some sixteen or eighteen miles “out,” read in the city papers of the death of Bartholomew J. Plunkett, she sat her down and wrote to the widow. And when she saw, a week later, that the Plunkett will had been admitted to probate, she wrote again.
“ Seven million dollars! ” said Miranda Harlow, “ and me a-slaving myself into my grave to keep up the interest on that mortgage ! It ain’t right. That woman can help me, and she’s just got to. Help ? Why, she could pay the whole thing off to-morrow as easy as turning your hand. What’s fifteen hundred to anybody with seven millions ? She’d never miss it.”
“ You won’t get any of it,” said her niece sourly. “ She has n’t answered either of your letters, has she ? Well, then ! ”
“ She’s going to answer me ! ” retorted Miranda. “ I can take the trolley and go in and get back again for twenty cents, and I’m going to do it! ”
“ Huh ! ” said her niece.
“ If your uncle Joshua had lived another year or two, we should have had the last half of that mortgage paid off, and I should have been able to-day to call this house my own. I’ve worried on in the old way about as long as I can stand it, and now I’m going to try a new one.”
“ She has n’t answered either of your letters, has she ? ” reiterated the niece.
No, Susannah Plunkett had not answered either of Miranda Harlow’s letters, nor many out of the hundreds of others brought by the same mails. Miranda Harlow thought her mortgage the only mortgage in the world, but she was mistaken. There were at least nine others, as the same mail that carried her second request disclosed. It also disclosed six men of varying ages and degrees of hopefulness who needed a little money to start up in business; three girls who wanted to come to the city to cultivate their voices; two insistent housekeepers who requested the wherewithal for clearing their furniture from the grip of the installment man ; eleven miscellaneous persons who required different sums for unspecified purposes, and a twelfth who, to a very peremptory demand, added a threat. Altogether, a representative Plunkett mail, slightly augmented by the temporary conspicuousness of the stricken family. Small wonder that Miranda Harlow got no response to her appeals.
Miranda made her trip to town, but spent her twenty cents to no purpose. Mrs. Plunkett declined to see her; the servant refused even to admit her into the house.
“ What did I tell you ? ” said her niece, welcoming the disappointed old lady back to Wileyville. “ You can’t get anything from rich people unless you ’re rich yourself. The only way to get anything out of them is to show that you don’t need anything. The only way to get them to give is to let ’em see you giving something yourself. I know that kind, let me tell you ! ”
Miranda looked at the girl with an intent frown ; Hetty had spent two or three years in the city, and was supposed to be more or less familiar with metropolitan manners.
“ Maybe you ’re right,” said her aunt slowly. She fell into thought. “I’ll bring that woman round yet — you see.” She thought for another day. “ Yes, sir, I ’ll risk fifty dollars on it, if I have to ; or a hundred.” She gave her head a series of short, quick bobs.
“ Well, what is it? ” asked her niece.
“ I’m thinking of the time your uncle Joshua went into town to that hospital.”
“ Oh, are you ? ” said Hetty, puzzled.
“ Hetty,” spoke Miranda, with great decision, “ you and me are going to the city to spend a week. I ’ll write in today. The board for the two of us can’t be more than fourteen dollars. Get ready. Your poor old aunt is going to show out as a moneyed woman, — and a cripple, into the bargain, I think.”
Two days later a wheeled chair began to haunt the opulent purlieus of Laplaine Avenue, moving slowly up and down the broad stone sidewalks under the shadows cast by the fresh June foliage of elms and cottonwoods. The chair contained an elderly woman who contrived to look more benign than she felt, and was propelled by a younger one, dressed more or less like a trained nurse, who looked crosser than any mere paid attendant would have dared. Every forenoon for two or three hours, and again for a shorter time in the afternoon, did the chair travel up and down the checkered footway, with especial reference, however, to the corner on which stood the house of the Plunketts. The grumpy attendant in the cool striped gown paused now and then to rest herself by sitting for a few moments on the low brownstone coping that served the Plunketts for a fence, while the gray-haired occupant of the chair would look up at the Plunkett windows in a deprecatory fashion, as if to say, —
“ Pardon this freedom ; but pray have some slight indulgence for an unfortunate cripple.”
Then, assured of a satisfactory audience, Miranda Harlow — for it was she, as the story-teller is privileged to say — would take up, with a greater show of gusto than she felt, her coolly calculated part of Lady Bountiful. She was a hapless cripple, true, but such a rich one, such a generous one, such a gracious and warm-hearted one ! Her laprobe was spread with flowers and sweets and toys, and the children of the rich came clustering round her chair as flies round a sugar cask. She dispensed her toys and goodies with a fine grandmotherly air that won the nurses along with their charges, and that presently made the dear lady under treatment at the hospital over in the next street a household word for two blocks up and down.
For nobody ever came into Laplaine Avenue to give anything away, — except boys with handbills, who were multitudinous and perennial. Give ? To Laplaine Avenue ? No ; a thousand times no! On the contrary, it was get, get, get, the whole year through. Get somehow, get anyhow. Beg, steal, trick, wheedle : the hapless rich of Laplaine Avenue were a target for the whole town. Their facades must needs oppose a perpetual resistance to the onslaughts of the shiftless, the impecunious, the temporarily embarrassed, the impudently speculative. Their interiors were held to be cumbered with gold and silver awaiting the hardy and dexterous miner that should have the luck to break his way in. Everybody’s hand was raised against them: they were assailed by tramps, peddlers, canvassers, assessors ; solicitors for charities, by wild-eyed anarchistic Germans, by compilers of “ élite directories,” by superannuated professors with failing eyesight, by decayed French gentlewomen who wanted to play pianos at private musicales. And into such a milieu as this now came Miranda of the Open Hand.
And Miranda opened her hand and gave. But she was not firing for general results. She lost no time in singling out the particular children who best would further her object: it was the five-year-old Plunkett twins — Susannah Plunkett’s granddaughters — who got the pick of things ; and however darkly niece Hetty might frown upon the nursemaids in general, she was under strict injunctions to have nothing but smiles for Norah O’Neil.
“ This will come out all right,” said Miranda, 舠 if you can only contrive to look a little bit pleasant. And if it does n’t, why, you ’ll buy your fall dress for yourself, that’s all.”
Then dawned the auspicious moment when Susannah Plunkett, lumbering majestically down Laplaine Avenue, one fine morning, happened upon Miranda Harlow just as she was dividing a lilac spray between Ethel and Gladys, — a touching episode that required thanks to round it out. Miranda worked her shoulder blades against Hetty’s knuckles, as a sign that the chair was to keep pace with Mrs. Plunkett’s further progress if necessary. The board bill was running right along, and nothing definite had yet been accomplished.
“ You are so kind to my grandchildren,” said Susannah, turning aside her veil, and dropping her humid eyes to the other flowers resting in Miranda’s lap.
“She is that! ” said Norah heartily.
“ I am a grandmother myself,” returned Miranda, — a fib, for her one child had died in infancy.
“ You have newly come into our neighborhood, I believe ? ” queried Susannah.
“ The hospital,” said Miranda simply, with a vague motion toward the other side of the street.
“ With friends ? ”
“ Alone,” replied Miranda. “ I have not a relative in the world.” Disinherited Hetty gave the chair a sudden jolt. She forgot she was only a nurse.
“ A widow — like me ? ”
“ A widow, yes.” Miranda did not say to this widow of a fortnight’s standing that she herself was one of three years’ standing, — time enough to have conquered her sorrow and to have readjusted herself to the world.
“You are confined to your chair ? ”
“ As you see,” replied Miranda. Hetty gave a gasp.
“ What a pity ! ” said Susannah, with a slow sweetness. In her loneliness her heart warmed to this detached yet cheery stranger, and she felt a sudden impulse to set all social conventions aside. “ If you could have come to lunch with me ” —
Miranda bit her lip with vexation. There was another jolt of the chair. “ You’ve overreached yourself finely ! ” it said.
“ Perhaps I might send you some delicacy or other,” suggested Susannah.
Miranda smiled again. “ I should ever remember your kindness,” she said artificially.
“If I might call upon you at the hospital ” — Susannah suggested further.
“Please do,” said Miranda, with undisguised eagerness. “ But I’m not — not in the hospital, — only next door to it.”
Susannah resumed her sombre way, and the children strolled along with the nurse.
“ Sort o’ nice woman, after all,” observed Hetty grudgingly, as the Lady of the Seven Millions passed on.
“ So she is,” assented Miranda ruefully. “ I ’most wish she was n’t.”
Susannah Plunkett came to the invalid’s boarding-house, carrying a plate with a napkin over it. As a further source of consolation, she had Norah O’Neil bring along the twins. Susannah talked amiably to the pretended cripple. Miranda had never felt so miserable in her life.
“ Well, I must say she’s a pretty pleasant lady,” declared Hetty, on her departure.
“ She is,” moaned Miranda. “ I wish she was n’t; I wish she was n’t! ”
Hetty looked at her aunt narrowly. “ I s’pose I’m going to have my fall dress all right ? ”
“ I don’t know whether you are or not ! ” snapped Miranda.
“ Well, then, I s’pose you ’re going to pay off that there mortgage ? ”
Miranda averted her face. “ I don’t know whether I am or not,” she returned, with some diminution of spirit.
“ I ’ll tell her about it! ”
“ If you do ! ”
But Hetty did, — the next time Susannah Plunkett called. Miranda, when aware of the fact, groaned in spirit and drove the girl out of the room.
“ Don’t believe her ! ” cried the conscience-stricken old soul. “It’s all an odious lie ! ”
“ There is no mortgage, then ? ” asked Susannah.
“ I mean that I’m a lie ; I mean that she’s a lie. That girl is not a hired nurse ; she is my niece. And I am not a cripple ; I’m just as sound and just as able to walk as you are. And those flowers and toys were all lies ; and my stopping in front of your windows and my petting the children. It was all just to take your attention and rouse your sympathy. But the mortgage is real; oh yes, that’s real enough, and it’s the only real thing in the whole hateful business ! ”
Miranda got out of her chair and stepped across the room, to demonstrate what an utter humbug she was; and then she dropped her head on Susannah Plunkett’s broad black shoulder and burst into tears. It was the best thing she could have done.
Susannah was interested; she had met many sorts of the financially embarrassed, but never one just like this. She was touched, too, and shed a few tears herself, — what were a few more after so many ?
“You may think I’m rich, with my giving away all those things,” proceeded Miranda, not fully aware how completely the character of her quarters negatived this notion; “ but I’m not. I’m as poor as Job’s turkey. As for worry, though — well, I’ve had enough of that to put me into a dozen hospitals !“
Susannah heard her out, to the last sordid detail. “ I will at least look after your interest for you,” she said. “ As for the principal itself, that requires consideration.”
Miranda and Hetty took the trolley back to Wileyville.
“ She ’ll pay the whole thing,” said Hetty. “ She’s that kind of a woman.”
“ I want her to,” replied Miranda ; “ and yet, somehow, I don’t. If I had n’t ” —
“ Well, anyway, I look to have that new dress,” insisted Hetty. “ If things fall through, after all, ’t ain’t ’ny fault of mine. I’ve earned it, and I want it. “
Henry B. Fuller.