The Big Trouble and the Little Boy
THE Boy was so small, and the Trouble was so big, that there seemed no way of getting over it, and as for getting around it, why that would take till the Boy was grown; and he felt that his heart must break if there were no sooner escape from the Trouble than the timehonored one of outgrowing it.
Perhaps you think that this was one of the common, absurdly magnified griefs of childhood ? You are wrong if you do, for this was a grown-up grief for a grown-up heart, and the Boy was but ten, and not so big for that. For the Trouble was that he had lost a mother, and more, that he might not even speak of her. He was quite sure of this, although no one had ever said so much to him. But you do not feel like making confidences to a stepmother concerning a beautiful, lost mother, and as for talking to the father who had set the stepmother in her place — the Boy’s heart would swell when he got this far; and if he were up in his room alone he would cry till his head ached, and he was quite sure he could not eat any dinner. But that was before he went down and saw the brown rolls, and the creamy milk, and the strawberry jam tempting him basely.
On a particular holiday afternoon in December, rather close to an important date, the Boy started off to join his chum. They were going to spend the rest of the day sliding on the ice, and getting their feet wet, and having a glorious time generally. The Boy felt almost like other boys as he strode along whistling a greeting to his chum who hung over the front gate. But just then the stepmother came out on the porch — “snooping,” muttered the Boy.
She was wrapped close in a great shawl, and her coiled brown hair showed black against the white of the house.
“Oh, Bobby,” she called in a high, sweet voice, trailing off into softness.
The Boy scowled, and took another step toward the gate as if he had not heard.
“Bobby,” she called again at this, and he turned, sullenly reluctant, to see what she was bothering him about.
“You mustn’t go out to-day, dear,” she said, coming to meet him. “You nearly had croup last night, you know, and papa said for you to be careful today.”
The Boy kept his eyes on the ground. He was too angry to speak. As if it were not enough to have the croup at his age, he must now be reminded of it before another boy, and told to keep in out of the damp like a baby. The sight of Tommy in his waiting attitude further enraged him.
“Aw, go on,” he shouted. “What you waiting on?”
The stepmother was going up the porch steps by now, so that Tommy could safely gesture his derision behind her back. “Stepmammy’s baby,” jeered Tommy soundlessly. But the Boy knew well enough what he was saying when he twisted his impish mouth in that manner.
He made a wild dash down the walk, and Tommy ran away laughing loudly, to tell the other boys why the Boy could not go and slide on the pond. Oh, the Boy knew it — knew it as well as if he were to be there and hear him do it.
He pretended not to hear her speak to him as he went through the hall; and this time she did not insist, so he went on up to his own room. It was a big, bright, charming room, and any one could see at once that there was still some one to love the Boy, for no neglected boy ever had a room of his very own like that. Nor was it a foolish room, but a perfectly fitting and suitable one; and although it might at first seem as if everything were there that a boy could desire, there had wisely been left many things for him to desire most ardently, — things you would hardly keep in your bedroom, — the ridinghorse, for example, which he secretly expected to get on the date before referred to.
But he did not think of anything so pleasant now. He had come upstairs to brood over his wrongs, so he sat in his window-seat and brooded. And the longer he brooded the blacker they seemed, which is a law of the human mind. By the time the gong sounded the summons to dinner he was groping so blindly in the shadows cast by them that on opening his door — somewhat tardily — he stumbled against the stepmother. “Snooping again,” thought the Boy contemptuously.
She looked at him with a puzzled expression in her affectionate brown eyes.
“I was afraid you had n’t heard, Bobby,” she said apologetically. Her hand touched his shoulder with a gentle movement.
All the rage of the past year surged in the Boy — broke over her. He flung her hand violently away.
“Don’t touch me,” he cried in a strange, unchildish voice. “I, I hate you!” Then he saw big Bob.
He made a hasty step toward the Boy, such anger in his face that the Boy shrank. In all his life no one had ever struck him; but this must be how they looked when they were about to strike you. But the stepmother went swiftly to big Bob and put a hand on his breast. The boyishlooking father quieted under that touch, and his eyes considering the Boy were troubled now instead of angry. His hand dropped to hers and held it tightly, while he looked from his one dearest thing in the world to his other dearest thing in the world. His eyes grew more troubled. They were troubled to death.
But the Boy did not notice, being too preoccupied with his own troubles just then. He was unable to endure the idea of being begged off by her. “I’d rather you’d hit me,” he flared out; but he knew that it was a lie. He got his head up and looked straight at his father as he said it. His heart was beating like a drum, and a sob choked him. They had been pals till she came — and now!
His father’s troubled eyes regarded him gravely. They were hurt and loving and bitter and puzzled all at once.
“Go to your room, Bobby,” he said at last in a voice that trembled a bit, “ and stay there till I think you out.”
He drew the stepmother within his arm as he spoke and they went down together, leaving the Boy to a great loneliness.
He did not know of the pleading face lifted by the stepmother, or that she said, “It must be my fault. Bob. I’ve never been used to boys at home.”
But big Bob only kissed her in silence, and went around to his place.
“ Take Bobby’s dinner up to him, Uncle Juste,” he said to the old colored man who waited on the table.
The next day when he came home in the dusk, the stepmother met him at the door and put both arms around his neck. His face had the worn look that comes when you’ve been thinking at a thing that won’t get thought out, try as you may; but he made it smile for her as he asked, “What is it, you wheedler?”
“ Bob, he does n’t eat a thing — that baby.” Her voice shook.
Big Bob gave a sigh at this complication, and went hastily up the steps, only pausing long enough to throw his hat on a table. So it came about that he flung open the door and appeared on the Boy’s threshold, with his brow vexed, and his riding swatch twitching nervously as it tapped his shoe. The Boy had started up from the window-seat as the door swung. At sight of his father he thought that he had been thought out at last. He got his head up again, and looked big Bob straight in the eyes as before, only the lonely rainy day had taken it out of him and he was afraid. They were too much alike for his father not to read that look aright. A flush of indignation rose to his face. He flung the whip out in the hall, and strode forward.
“ I’m no damned torturer, Bobby.” He said it savagely, as to another man, oath and all.
Then a rushing tenderness mastered him, and he stooped to the Boy. “You thought that of me, pal?” He sat down in the window-seat, gathering the Boy to him. “Why? ” he asked in real wonder.
The Boy hung his head, ashamed. “I thought you had thought me out — that way,” he blurted. He trembled in the trembling arm that tightened around him.
The man laughed in sudden release from his tension. “I have n’t thought you out any way yet, Bobby,” he confessed. “No, I only ran up to find out why you don’t eat your breakfast, your luncheon, your dinner. Anything wrong with them ? ”
“They choke me,” said the Boy.
“Poor old chap,” mused big Bob. He held him tighter while he drummed on the pane with his freehand. “Laddie,” he said at last, “ come down and have your dinner, and then we’ll come back up here and thresh things out a bit.”
The Boy said shyly, “I’d rather not, please, papa, just yet.”
“Will you eat it here, then ?”
“Pals?” asked the Boy. It was their old way of settling a difficulty.
“You bet we are,” cried the man.
“Then I guess I can,” said the Boy with a heartward movement. For a moment he forgot the stepmother. His head lay snuggled in an atmosphere of cigars and dead roseleaves — the stepmother had pinned the rose on in the morning, but the Boy did not think of that as his soft cheek crushed it against his father’s breast.
Presently big Bob put him lovingly away, and turned on a light, two lights.
“Don’t let me catch you moping in the dark again,” he cautioned, and went.
It was much later than he had meant when he returned. Callers had dropped in, and being gossipy creatures, had lingered unreasonably. It was nearing ten when he tapped on the Boy’s door.
“I’m awake,” called the clear, eager voice.
“But I hoped you’d be asleep,” said big Bob to the Boy, who sat up in bed, cuddling his knees, and shivering a little.
“I could n’t,” said the Boy. He looked three years younger in his scarlet striped pajamas, undone at the throat and showing the white childish breast to the second frog of his jacket. His chin looked round and babyish as he lifted his head.
A doubt assailed big Bob. Was it time yet for the last resort ? And yet what else was left him ? What else could he do ? It was the only way he could think the Boy out. And it must have an effect of some sort. The idea that it might make things worse he put from him in hasty terror.
“Fasten that at the neck, Bobby,” he advised, “It’s nipping to-night.”
The Boy fumbled it absent-mindedly, his hazel eyes searching his father’s face. He lay against his propped-up pillows again, his head thrown back on his clasped hands. Big Bob sat down on the bed’s edge facing him, and opened a magazine he had been holding.
He had opened it at a picture, and he sat gazing at it himself for some time before he could quite make up his mind to offer the magazine to the Boy.
The Boy took it with a puzzled air. He could not imagine what a ten-cent magazine had to do with the situation.
What he saw was the full-page picture of a beautiful woman in the superb costume of a chorus girl in a popular musical comedy. Under it was an alliterative stage name, and the Boy for a moment stared it down innocently and uncomprehendingly. Then his startled eyes met his father’s eyes with a shock. He handed the magazine back abruptly, and big Bob let it slide to the floor out of sight as he leaned forward, speaking low.
“Pal,” he said, bringing the truth out straight and clear and man to man, “she’s never been worth your grieving over. I might as well have told you the truth at first, but a man sounds like a cur to himself when he has to say this sort of thing — and it’s frightfully hard to say it to you.”
The Boy only gazed at him in shrinking silence, not helping a bit, and big Bob went on a little sternly, though the sternness was not for the Boy and the Boy knew it, miserable as he was.
“Bobby,” said big Bob, “she could leave you for that. She could leave you for ” — He stopped, his face sombre with what he left unsaid. “Do you think she loves you very much ? ”
A horrible, desolate mother-sickness swept over the Boy. He put his hand to his throat, and steadied his lips, trying to answer the direct question.
“She used to — love me,” he stammered. He must have that.
Big Bob considered him irresolutely; then he answered, “She never wanted you, Bobby. When you were little she was vain of your prettiness. You were rather a nuisance to her afterwards.”
The Boy wrenched his eyes away from his father’s tender, relentless, troubled face, and lay with them fixed on the blank wall opposite. He was marshaling his mother memories. He was sitting on the side of her bed watching her dress for a dance. Sometimes she would smile at him, and let him hold a bracelet, or a fan, or a ribbon. When she was dressed and looked like a princess straight from fairyland, he might kiss her if he did not muss her. Sometimes they had gone driving together, and he had been proud when they passed other boys who had perfectly commonplace mothers who were not even pretty, perhaps, like the stepmother. And she gave him things, things enough for twenty boys. And she never bothered him, or put him to shame before other boys. She never came snooping around, feeling his forehead to see if he were feverish when he had been out in the wet all day and chanced to come home with a sore throat. She had been an ideal mother in this respect. And he might kiss her as much as he wished when she was not too fragilely arrayed; in the morning, for instance, when she lounged in pale fragrant draperies, and nibbled chocolates, and chattered pretty nonsense to her women friends, or to big Bob, — but it was long ago, that joint memory.
His eyes slowly traveled back to his father’s face. “Was it all her fault? ” he asked.
Big Bob colored deeply. “It is never all any one’s fault,” he answered honestly; “but—do you think me a bad fellow, Bobby?”
“You are good to me,” replied Bobby gravely.
“And I was good to her,” said big Bob. “ On my honor as a man, Bobby, it was her fault — most.”
The Boy took this in pondering silence.
“When you were — littler — who told you stories, Bobby?” asked big Bob unexpectedly.
“You,” said the Boy in a small voice.
“Who petted you ? Who kissed you ?”
“You did,” said the Boy. Ilis voice was even smaller.
“When you got sick who nursed you well ? ”
“A — a trained nurse,” said the Boy, “and you.”
“And,” asked big Bob, “who always loved you best, Bobby?”
The Boy’s lips quivered too much for speech. The piteousness of it smote big Bob to the heart. “ Oh,” he muttered between his teeth. Hitherto he had refrained from coercing the Boy’s judgment with the persuasion of touch; but now he leaned closer and took Bobby quite in his arms. At that the long-restrained tears gushed out and wet big Bob’s cheek where it pressed the Boy’s.
“Pal,” he said, his cheek on the brown head now, and his voice unbelievably tender, “she never had the mother heart, and that says it all — and, pal, my Mary has.”
He let the Boy go, and rested the case.
The Boy lay cast across the bed, his head crushed in his straining arms. Sobs shook him at last.
The father bent to him. “Must I go away, Bobby ? Must I stay ? ”
“Please — go,” said Bobby between two sobs.
Big Bob turned out the lights, and went.
To pluck a mother from one’s heart — one may not do that all at once. Long into the night the Boy lay there. Sometimes he sobbed convulsively. Sometimes he thought things out as consciously as he could; but all that came of it was that he loved his father better than any one in the world. No clear idea regarding the stepmother got into his tumbled, brown head. At length, worn out, he fell asleep, dimly conscious, as he was falling, of some faint commotion about the house.
When he woke next morning it was late, and brilliant, cold sunshine flooded the room. He blinked and sat up, rubbing his eyes open.
The unhappiness of the past night woke with him — dully; but he was only a little boy after all, and the counteracting sense of his father’s love for him could not but be sweet and warm at his heart; and to-morrow — why, to-morrow it would be Christmas.
He jumped up and dressed, and knelt in the window-seat, watching the show of the street, and waiting, for he felt that he would rather go down with a hand in his father’s. But the hours went dragging, and big Bob did not come, and the Boy’s heart grew chilled. His father might have been called up town, or even out of town; but the Boy did not believe that he would have gone off, and never a word left for him.
When luncheon came up he asked.
“Why no,” said Uncle Juste. “Your pa’s with Miss Mary, son.”
Dumb anger surged in the Boy’s tired heart. So he was not even to have his father, for her ?
He pushed his plate away, and sat staring drearily through the open door.
Suddenly across his line of vision stalked old Doctor Hardin. A spasm of terror shook Bobby’s soul. What had happened ? He sprang up and followed down the corridor. The doctor disappeared within the stepmother’s door, and a trained nurse came out with a tray. She raised a hand to warn him away as she passed.
So it was only her! The Boy turned and was going back to his room when a strange sound smote his ear. He had heard it in other boys’ homes, and he recognized it after a stupefied pause.
“When the doctor goes, you can come in and see your little sister,” said the nurse, repassing and smiling at him pleasantly. As she went in, his father came out, turning a laughing face over his shoulder. “I’ve been neglecting my Boy for this young woman,” he was saying to some one. Then he caught sight of the Boy.
He shut the door, and hastened to meet him, catching him in his arms. “Were you looking me up, pal?” he asked.
The Boy pressed against him. Way down in his heart a tiny flower of wonder and chivalry budded and broke to magical bloom. So he, the Boy, had a little sister — to pet, to protect, to make behave herself when she should be bigger. It came to him in a revelation what a truly desirable Christmas gift she was. The stepmother’s door opened again, and through it he had a glimpse of her face in her pillows, pale between two soft brown braids, so dark against all that white. And it came to him how roughly he had pushed her hand away that evening, and shame swept through him as it might have swept through a man, and the flower in his heart seemed blooming for her too.
Big Bob tilted his face up. “Well, you rascal ? ”
“I’m glad,” said the Boy.
“So am I,” agreed big Bob, with a look toward the door that was a prayer of thankfulness.
Then he looked back to the Boy with his questioning face, “Well? ” he asked again.
“Papa,” said the Boy, “may I tell her that I am — sorry ? ”
“Tell — whom?” asked big Bob softly.
The Boy hesitated — for you can’t do it all at once, oh, you can’t do it all at once! His eyes plunged deep in his father’s, and he essayed it.
“M — Mary,” stammered the Boy.
“It’s the same thing,” said big Bob. “Come along, pal.”