The Dean of the Boarding-House: A Pratt Portrait
“ A BOARDING-HOUSE is no place for a child.”
Thus spoke Arabella Spencer, the dean of the boarding-house, and none had the temerity to dispute her. Even the injudicious petting of the child in question, an engaging little three-year-old answering to the name of “ Dimple, was discreetly abandoned; whereupon the little tot, with an indifference anything but flattering, transferred her attention to a jointed wooden doll, some seven inches long, whose sole attire for the moment consisted in a neat crop of painted hair. If Dimple, in the care with which she was wrapping a scant bit of pink calico about the attenuated form, evinced a rudimentary sense of the value of raiment in a cold and critical world, we may be sure that she found nothing amiss in the painted hair. Who would not prefer it to the kind that got into horrid snarls and had to be combed and tweaked into order?
As the child immersed herself in maternal cares, the dean of the boardinghouse, who was similarly engaged, — save that the small flannel petticoat she was hemming would appear to be destined for alien offspring, — glanced from time to time, and with a grudging interest, at the little mother. No, a boarding-house was no place for a child; nor was it, superficially considered, the fitting place for a well-to-do daughter of the Pratts and Spencers. A stranger, learning of the eminent lineage of Arabella Spencer, might well have asked what untoward fate had brought her to this pass, though for the initiated the key to the riddle was not far to seek. “My grandfather built this house,” she took pride in stating; “ my father owned it, and my mother lived in it for upwards of fifty years.” And, if in an expansive mood, she would add, “ I myself was born in the room I now occupy.” What wonder if, with such claims to precedence, she was early accorded the deanship ?
It was one of her fellow boarders, the late Professor Calder, who had conferred upon her this titular dignity, and in nothing was her gratification at the amiable pleasantry more apparent than in the zeal with which, both before and after his death, she was ever ready to proclaim the profound erudition of the scholarly recluse. From youth up Arabella had been noted for a tenacious loyalty, and her friends were wont to point out that at the age of fifty she had yet to change either her name or her nature. She was to-day the same excellent, opinionated personage she had given evidence of being while yet in her cradle, and she was still Arabella Spencer.
Let it not be inferred, however, that she was therefore an old maid. That was an obloquy which no granddaughter of Old Lady Pratt had had the hardihood to incur. One or two, indeed, had postponed the fateful step almost to the danger limit; but before she went hence, that unswerving champion of the domestic hearth had the felicity of seeing the most recalcitrant of her children’s daughters gathered into the blessed fold of matrimony.
Arabella, to be sure, had shown no signs of recalcitrancy, barring a preliminary revolt against the necessity which society imposes upon a woman of changing her name.
“ Say what you please, grandmother,” she had declared, with the easy finality of youth, — it was the very day on which she had signalized her entrance upon young-ladyhood by the donning of an elaborate thread-lace veil, becomingly festooned across the rim of her pokebonnet as she now tossed it back in the interest of free speech. “ Say what you please, — there is something galling about it. As if it did n’t matter what a woman’s name was! ”
“ Did n’t matter! ” quoth old Lady Pratt, glancing shrewdly at the mutinous young eyes, black, like her own, but as yet singularly unlit of wisdom. “ I should say it did matter! Jest you wait and see.”
“ Then you did n’t like giving up your own name!” was Arabella’s too hasty conclusion.
“ Like it ? Of course I liked it! And I guess Kingsbury’s full as genteel a name as Spencer, too! But from the fust hour that your grandfather — ” A faint flush stained the sound old cheek. “ But there! Jest you wait and see.”
As often as Old Lady Pratt found herself caught in any allusion to the romance of her fife, which the passage of years had been impotent to dim, she would take refuge in the little phrase, “ But there!” It held a world of meaning on her lips.
Now neither did Arabella have long to wait, nor was she ever constrained to “ see.” For by an incredible freak of fortune her very first suitor — and consequently her last — bore the cherished name of Spencer.
“ I declare for’t,” Old Lady Pratt exclaimed, when Harriet stepped over to acquaint her with her daughter’s engagement, “ ef ’t wa’n’t for soundin’ irreverent, I should call it ill-judged of Providence to humor the girl so! ”
“ Well,” Harriet rejoined, with uncompromising frankness, “ I guess that’s as far’s the humoring can be said to extend. Joseph seems to be an unexceptionable young man, but I can’t truthfully claim that he ’s a commanding personality. ” It may be observed in passing that years of opulence had greatly enriched Harriet’s vocabulary.
“ I knew it,” the old lady chuckled. “ It was the name that fetched her! ”
Either that, or the statistics,” Harriet assented dryly, and with an ironic recognition of her prospective son-inlaw’s one distinguishing trait.
For although Joseph Spencer, a mediocre lawyer, and already middle-aged at thirty, was guiltless of any scientific apprehension of statistics, he had the sort of mind that revels in figures. In fact, it may be questioned whether it would ever have occurred to him to offer himself to Arabella, had she not chanced in an unguarded moment to mention the exact number of gallons that go to make the annual water-supply of the city of London, — an item which, as he very wrell knew, she had gleaned that same evening from the Dunbridge Weekly Chronicle. But, indeed, what more could the most exacting have demanded ? The poor girl lacked the requisite data for computing those gallons herself; and Joseph, recognizing that fact, was joyfully ready to accept the mere enunciation on her lips of a sum mounting into eleven figures as a revelation of the unsuspected scope of the female intellect. From that hour he knew that he had found his affinity.
And what if the determining factor in Arabella’s action had been an equally flimsy one ? What if Old Lady Pratt was right, and it had been the name that “ fetched her ” ? Young people are subject to strange delusions in this most critical of all adventures, and the glamour of a name has played its part ere now in many a more exalted alliance than poor Arabella’s. One thing at least may be asserted, — that having once made her choice, and in perfect good faith, no shadow of regret was ever known to tinge her words or actions. She took her Joseph as she found him, and it is but fair to admit that she found him quite innocuous.
For, aside from the master-passion of his life, to which his wife soon became aware of playing a distinctly secondary role, young Spencer might have been fairly described as a negative character. And when, after some ten years more of assiduous figuring, he achieved the final and not unimpressive negation of a premature demise, Arabella, whose mourning partook of the tempered fervor which had formed the high-water mark of their marital relations, went home to the fine old house of her grandfather’s erection, where she soon settled down into a very congenial life with her excellent mother. Matrimony had been to her little more than a period of stagnation, only fleetingly stirred by the coming, and, sad to say, the going, of an only child. For the little creature, twice a Spencer, had died on the day of its birth, — too early, as intrusive sympathizers were informed, for her to have become deeply attached to it. Whether this cold-blooded attitude was genuine, or assumed in selfdefense, none could tell. Certain it is, however, that the dead level of her marriage, lacking as it did even the animating element of overt discord, had produced in her something akin to atrophy of the affections; so that her strong but limited nature had come to centre more and more upon names and places, to the exclusion of any vital human interest. Even the death of her mother, which, occurring before that vigorous dame had attained her eightieth year, threw them all off their reckoning, left the daughter quite mistress of her feelings; and it was not until the decree went forth in family council that the old house must go, that the iron entered into Arabella’s soul.
In vain did they point out to her the deterioration of the immediate neighborhood which must soon render the place unavailable as a residence for any one with sufficient means to maintain it, — in which category Arabella herself was unhappily not to be reckoned. She only knew that it was the old home, the home to which she was bound by every fibre of her being; and she fought, tooth and nail, against its profanation. But alas, she was to learn, as many a doughty conservative has done, that those primitive weapons are of small avail in a singlehanded encounter with Progress. Before her eyes, and with her own enforced connivance, the sacrifice was accomplished, and the property delivered over to the spoilers, who made no secret of their intention of cutting up the superfluous land into house-lots. I think the most humiliating act of Arabella’s life was the affixing of her signature to that iniquitous deed of sale.
For days following her overwhelming defeat, she shut herself up in the great lonely house, — where the very servants seemed like ghosts of the past, — wandering restlessly from room to room, sliding her hand along the cool mahogany stair-railing, turning with her foot, though it was mid-summer, the circular brass “ register ” whose high polish she had always gloried in,—shedding veritable tears over the fragrant shelves of the linen-closet, so soon to be denuded of their housewifely store. As day by day she nursed her bitter grievance, it came to look as if she might never again be on amicable terms with her recreant kindred.
Happily for the cause of good feeling, however, she was spared the crowning indignity of actual dislodgment; for, even as she was on the verge of ejection, news reached her that the old homestead was to be turned into a boarding-house. The crisis was acute, and she wasted little time in pros and cons. None of her family, to be sure, had ever lived in a boardinghouse; but the thought of their impending “ disgruntlement,” far from giving her pause, only lent a pleasing zest to the sacrifice she was resolved upon.
“ Yes,” she announced, with admirable nonchalance, “ I have n’t got to move out after all.”
“ Not move out ? ” echoed her brother Richard, who, having solicited an interview on a matter of business, had unwittingly exposed himself to the shock.
“ No; I’m going to board with Mrs. Wadley. I’ve engaged mother’s chamber.”
The blow was delivered quietly, but with telling effect, and Richard did not attempt to conceal his discomfiture.
“ You mean to say that you ’ve engaged to live in a boarding-house, without consulting any of the family ? ” he was so illadvised as to ask.
“ There was no one in the family to consult — of whose judgment I had any opinion,” she asserted, yet with the unruffled calm of one conscious of having the situation well in hand.
“ It’s not a matter of judgment,” he declared testily. “ It’s a matter of fact. In the first place, you’ve got income enough to have a house of your own. Not anything like this, of course, but—”
“ I am aware of the exact figure of my income, Richard.”
“ Then it’s going to be noisy and disagreeable here for a long time to come. There’ll be building going on, and — ”
“ I ’d rather have that in ray ears than on my conscience,” she interposed, with unmistakable point; and Richard, perceiving that she was in anything but a conciliatory mood, wisely desisted from further argument. He had a hot temper of his own, and he was not sure just how much of a drubbing he could take without hitting back. Moreover, he loved his sister and, if the truth were known, he found himself secretly applauding her spirit.
But all were not as tolerant as he, and for a short space the family was up in arms. Her eldest brother, James, after spending as much as fifteen consecutive minutes in an attempt to shake Arabella’s determination, declared that he had no patience with her; only, as James had never been known to have patience with anybody, that did n’t so much matter. Aunt Edna, the soldier uncle’s widow, who had accepted too many benefits first and last at the hands of her rich sisterin-law to feel quite pleasantly toward the family, gave it as her opinion that you never could tell where one of Harriet’s children would break out; while even Uncle Ben, that kindliest of wags, remarked with something bordering on asperity, that the girl might as well be a cat and done with it — to stay prowling round a house after the folks had moved out!
Only her younger sister, Lucy, — who had been blissfully in love with her architect husband since the day that he had entered into her heart by way of the Gothic tree-vistas of Elm Street, — only Lucy did justice to her sentiment about the house.
“ Grandpa built it,” Lucy would explain, with an artless sententiousness all her own. “ A builder’s work, you know, is really a part of himself; and Frank and I think it lovely of Arabella to feel as she does about it.”
And Arabella, heeding neither cuffs nor kisses, stayed on in the ancestral mansion, undaunted by desolating changes within and without. The good Mrs. Wadley did her misguided best to vulgarize the stately interior, while the new owners lost no time in dividing up the half-dozen generous acres into small house-lots, to be promptly disfigured by a mushroom growth of cheap and tawdry dwellings. The terraced lawn in front was thus thrice encumbered, the sightly gardens at the rear were ruthlessly invaded and obliterated, and the old house itself stood crowded to suffocation among the interlopers, despoiled even of its last vestige of a driveway, and accessible only by a footpath leading from the side street. Within one short year, as calendar years are reckoned, during which Arabella had suffered untold scourgings of the spirit, the great desecration was accomplished.
It was now seven years since this befell, and even as the vandals had been powerless to budge the old house from its proud eminence upon the uppermost terrace, so Arabella too had held her own, and from being merely the self-appointed guardian of ancient dignities, had come to be recognized and deferred to as dean of the boarding-house. Hence it was that when she pronounced a boarding-house to be an unfit place for a child, no voice was raised to dispute her.
If, after that, conversation seemed inclined to languish, there was nothing unusual in the circumstance at this evening hour, the only hour of Arabella’s day when it was her habit to “ mingle ” with her fellow boarders. There was a conclusiveness in the dean’s dicta which not infrequently operated as a check on social intercourse.
Half-a-dozen ladies were gathered in what was once called “ the long parlor,” now sadly abbreviated by reason of a partition thrown across the middle, directly beyond the stately Corinthian pillars, which, thus robbed of their significance in the architectural scheme, made a not very impressive appearance. The little girl had established herself on the floor between the two front windows, just where one of the long pier-glasses used to rest on its marble slab, her straight little legs sticking out in front of her at an exact right angle with the small upright back; and Arabella seemed to remember that once upon a time, in fact at about the period when the pier-glasses were installed, she too had possessed the enviable faculty of maintaining that difficult position. She glanced furtively at the child, still immersed in sumptuary affairs ; and presently, when general conversation had somewhat revived, she drew from her work-basket a roll of white galloon braid, and snipped off a halfyard of it.
“ Little girl,” she called abruptly, “ you’d better come and tie this round your doll to keep her clothes on.”
Arabella’s principles would not permit of her addressing any human being, of whatever degree of insignificance, as “ Dimple,” nor yet could she bring herself to use her mother’s name of Harriet, which the child’s sponsors were understood to have bestowed upon her. Harriet, indeed ! — this offspring of a flighty, inefficient mother, turned loose upon a boarding-house!
“ She must be taught common decency,” Arabella remarked to her next neighbor at the centre table; and Miss Tate, one of the dean’s warmest adherents, earnestly endorsed the sentiment.
Meanwhile, the nameless one picked up her small person from the floor, and approached the dispenser of toilet requisites with undisguised interest. It was the first time the tall lady with the shiny breast-pin had ever spoken to her, though Dimple had often felt those observant eyes upon her. As the child put out a confiding hand for the proffered gift, Arabella hesitated an instant. How could that futile paw be expected to perform so intricate a feat as the tying of a bow-knot ?
“ Here, I’ll fix it for you,” she said, brusquely; and yet the movement was not ungentle with which she took the wisp of wood and cotton from the little hand and deftly executed the small task.
As she handed back the object of her solicitude thus reclaimed to decency, the child gave vent to her feelings in a gleeful hop and bleat as of a gratified lambkin, which was really far more expressive than any conventional acknowledgment would have been. But Miss Tate, intoxicated by Arabella’s condescension of a moment ago, needs must become didactic.
“ What have you got to say to the kind lady ? ” she put in, and thereby blundered badly. For Arabella prided herself upon never “ looking for thanks.”
Nor were matters at all improved when Dimple, poking her jointed darling under the very nose of the lady with the shiny pin, lisped, “ Kith Dolly! ”
“ Nonsense, child,” Arabella protested, really abashed by the suggestion, and pushing the preposterous manikin away.
But, “Kith Dolly! Kith Dolly!” the little thing persisted, while Arabella firmly resumed work on the flannel petticoat. Upon which, unable to control her wounded feelings, that absurd infant set up a most heart-rending wail, to which doleful accompaniment two incredibly large tears came welling up in the round blue eyes, and spilling over on the round pink cheeks.
This was really too much, and the dean of the boarding-house was on the point of adopting repressive measures, when again Miss Tate blundered.
“ You are a very naughty girl, Harriet! ” she expostulated severely.
Arabella took instant umbrage. She scarce knew which was more to be resented, the use of that honored name in accents of reproof, or the meddling of an inexperienced spinster in a matter so plainly outside her province. For suddenly, and with a queer, exultant thrill, Arabella remembered that she had once been a mother. After all, — poor Miss Tate! — how could she be expected to understand a child ?
“ She does n’t mean to be naughty,” the dean of the boarding-house pleaded, with a pitying tolerance for the too zealous martinet; and there, before them all, she took the dolly in her band and unblushingly kissed it.
Upon which the child, in an ecstasy at having got her own way, proceeded to push her advantage still further, and lifting her little face, “Kith Dimple!” she commanded.
Then Arabella bent her head, intending to administer a noncommittal peck, such as she kept about her for the little Pratts and Spencers that abounded in the family. But as her lips touched the soft cheek a quick pang seized her, and there awoke in her heart something that had slumbered there for nigh upon thirty years, — something that she had supposed dead and buried long ago. And again a strange thought crossed her mind, — that if her own baby had lived it might have had a child like this. Not a very wonderful thought perhaps, but it gripped, and Arabella was not used to that sort of thing.
Shaken out of her habitual composure, she hastily gathered up her work and prepared to leave the room, quite ten minutes in advance of the accustomed hour.
“ Run and play, little girl,” she admonished, with a crisp decision curiously at variance with the disconcerting thrill that possessed her; and the child, content walk the victory she had so lightly scored, trotted back to her post between the windows.
When Arabella, bidding the ladies good-night, had made a dignified exit, there was an immediate outbreak of comment.
“ Well,” snapped Mrs. Edgecomb, as soon as the rustle of skirts had ceased on the stairs, “ I should like to know who’s spoiling that child now! ”
“ I confess that I was glad to see Mrs. Spencer unbend,” Mrs. Treadwell admitted, in her comfortable way. “ She’s as good a woman as ever lived, but I must say she’s always seemed to me just a little mite stiff.”
“ She’s never stiff with me,” Miss Tate intimated, with a fatuous simper. “ But then, I suppose I’m on more confidential terms with her than some.”
“ Eh? What’s that? Confidential terms ? ” piped up old Mrs. Inkley, in her rasping falsetto. “ There wa’n’t never anybody on confidential terms with Arabella Spencer. I’ve known that girl sence before she was born, ’n’ she’s closemouthed as her own bed-post! ”
“ She’s open-handed enough, any way,” Miss Tate temporized, discreetly changing her tack. For Arabella’s liberality was matter of common knowledge which even a pre-natal authority could not well gainsay.
“ I do wish our dear dean might get to taking an interest in that child,” kind Mrs. Treadwell purred. “ The mother seems to be well-meaning enough, but—”
“ What is it she’s round after so much ? ” asked Della Robin, who liked to know things.
“ I should say she was round after Ed Lambert, far as I can judge,” Mrs. Edgecomb opined. “She’s forever buggyriding with that fellow, or going to Comic Opera with him, the way she’s done tonight, when she’d better have stayed at home, putting her baby to bed.”
“ They say young Lambert’s going on the stage,” Miss Tate ventured, taking heart of grace to reenter the conversation.
“ There ain’t no stages nowadays,” rasped old Mrs. Inkley, who never seemed to hear anything unless there was a chance to contradict, the which she had a fatal propensity for discovering in Miss Tate’s most harmless statements.
“ She means the operatic stage,” Mrs. Treadwell interposed soothingly. “He’s got a real good voice, you know. His father sang in the Orthodox choir.”
“ How long has she been a widow? ” queried Della Robin, once more yielding to a fitful thirst for information.
“ A year and a half. And it leaves her soul-alone in the world; for her folks are all dead, and as far as I can make out, he never had any from the beginning.”
“ What did he die of?” Mrs. Edgecomb demanded, in the tone of a Pinkerton detective, who will brook no evasion.
“ Why, he was in the sardine business, and she says he was lost on a down-east freighter, off the coast of New Brunswick.”
“ I hope he was,” was Miss Tate’s somewhat startling comment. “ That is, — I hope she is n’t mistaken, or rather, — I was only thinking — supposing she was to marry again, you know, like Enoch Arden’s widow, — only she was n’t a widow, either, — was she! ” — And, hopelessly entangled in a wordy web of her own contrivance, Miss Tate fell abruptly silent.
“ Well, no! ” Mrs. Treadwell laughingly agreed. “ I should say she was rather particularly not a widow!” And the conversation, having thus strayed into the higher realms of literature, became so much less animated that the more studiously inclined found themselves free to return to their evening papers.
And all this time the “ little girl ” was prattling innocently with her dolly, paying no heed whatever to the discussion of her parents, which, truth to tell, was couched in terms far transcending her comprehension.
Arabella meanwhile, arrived in “ mother’s chamber,” lighted her drop-light, which glowed softly through the porcelain transparency of its pretty, six-sided shade, and, seating herself in her favorite chair by the table, breathed a sigh of satisfaction. Here at last she was on her own ground, safe from intruding fancies. She glanced about the fine old room, where each piece of furniture stood in its accustomed place as in her mother’s day, and her eye was caught by a small mahogany armchair over there by the fireplace. A capital little chair it was, of excellent design and workmanship, and boasting a seat-covering embroidered in cross-stitch.
As she picked up her sewing, on which she had been somewhat hindered by the little incident of the galloon braid, she found herself thinking how she used to enjoy sitting in that little chair, until it grew too snug a fit. The seat-covering represented a pair of pickaninnies, one of them playing the accordion, the other cocking an appreciative ear to listen. It had been some time before she could bring herself to do them the discourtesy of sitting down on them; but later, when she found that they never seemed to mind, she had come to the sapient conclusion that little black boys in cross-stitch were not so sensitive as the other kind. Funny little boys! They had n’t changed a bit in all these years.
The flannel petticoat, on which she was making excellent progress, was not so engrossing but that her mind was free to roam.
It seemed as if almost any child might like to sit in a chair like that, she thought; — why not that little girl downstairs, whose doll — really, the creature must not be allowed to go naked any longer! And, at this point in her meditations, Arabella laid her work down, and, rising, made a bee-line for the piece-bag which hung on its peg in her dressing-room. Ah, here was just what she wanted, — a bit of flowered silk, reminiscent, but cheerfully so, of her girlhood.
Squandering no time on those sentimental considerations which cluster so thickly about a piece-bag, she put back the other neat rolls of silk, and, with an intensely practical air, returned to her seat beside the drop-light. Here she picked up her scissors and began cutting up the dainty remnant into breadths and biases, by the side of which the baby’s petticoat, victim again of unmerited neglect, looked for all the world like a Brobdingnagian garment. Eagerly she twisted and turned the morsel of silk, nimbly she plied her needle, fashioning a marvelous tittle frock such as only a seven-inch pygmy could make use of. And such were the exactions of her task that the mantelclock had quietly but firmly mentioned the hour of ten before ever she found leisure to straighten her back.
As she subjected her completed handiwork to a searching scrutiny, which however brought no flaw to light, “ Mother always said I was a capable needlewoman,” she told herself. But that was disingenuous of Arabella, for she well knew that her mother’s approbation was not what she was just then aiming to deserve.
And when, the next afternoon, the small chair was once more in commission, its little occupant rapturously engaged in arraying Dolly in the fairy frock, Arabella sat tranquilly hemming the Brobdingnagian petticoat as if she had no other interest in life. She believed in letting children alone, and nothing had so pleased her in the behavior of her little beneficiary as the matter-of-course way in which she had received the fairy offering. Indeed, if the truth were known, it had seemed to the child quite as natural to accept gifts at the hands of the lady with the shiny pin who had kissed Dolly, as at the hands of the mother who kissed Dimple herself when she happened to think of it, which was getting to be less and less often.
For Dimple’s mother, as may have been inferred, was allowing herself to be a good deal monopolized by that same Ed Lambert, who, though not a stagedriver, was a famous whip. She was a pleasure-loving creature, and she never wearied of driving, in what she regarded as the height of “ style,” behind the smart trotter that Ed handled so well. The young man’s tongue was a valiant one too, and his bold, masterful eyes were more eloquent still, and — well, he was quite deliciously in love with Dimple’s mother. He was going “ on the road ” in February, with a Gilbert and Sullivan opera company, — he had secured an engagement to sing a minor part in Pinafore, which was sure to lead to something better, — and he was ardently insistent that she should marry him and come along too. Only, there was Dimple, quite another order of pinafore, — an operetta of the little widow’s own, in fact, — and one that somehow did not seem to fit into the programme at all. And so Dimple’s mother felt it her duty to seize upon every opportunity of telling Ed how she adored Dimple, and of how she could never take any step to the detriment of the child; and this obliged her to spend so many hours a day in his society that Dimple found herself reduced to very low rations in the matter of kisses.
Meanwhile, Dimple’s own little affair was progressing quite as trippingly as her mother’s, as indeed it deserved to do. When she was not playing out of doors (such a poor little contracted ” out-ofdoors” as the old place now afforded!), she was like as not to be found in Mis’ Pensey’s room, — her own attractive corruption of an august cognomen! And not only had she achieved a new and engaging title for Arabella, but she herself was no longer put off with the far too generic appellation of “ little girl.”
It came about in this wise. She was taking a walk with Mis’ Pensey one day in late October, — an unusual indulgence, since Arabella was a bit shy of being seen abroad in compromising company, — and, as they were traversing the quiet thoroughfare of Green Street, the child gave one of her bird-like chirps, articulate in this instance as “ Pitty house! ” Whereupon Arabella, glancing up, beheld a turkey-red curtain fluttering at an open window, and became aware that it was Old Lady Pratt’s house that had been thus singled out for commendation. She stayed her step a moment. It did look pretty, the tidy old house with its fresh white paint and green blinds, its neat grass-plot and the garden-beds bordering the walk. It had been in good hands since it went out of the family, faring far better than her own home had done, and now it was again placarded, “ For sale.” Who would buy it, she wondered, — this house, also of her grandfather’s construction, where her forbears had lived and died. She was glad to hear it called a pretty house, though she knew well that it was the gay curtains that had caught the baby fancy.
As they resumed their walk, “ Pitty house! ” the child insisted, with the cheerful reiteration whereby she had learned to compel assent; and Arabella, looking down at the little thing, trudging along so contentedly at her side, answered gently, “ Yes, it is a pretty house, Harriet ! ” The thing was done so casually that the child paid no special heed, though from that hour she answered to the name. But to Arabella it marked the lowering of an irksome barrier which she had not quite known how to cross.
Yet all this time, — and time was traveling fast, — while one after another her defenses were going down before the soft assaults of her ingenuous little adversary, Arabella was far from admitting to herself the true measure of her subjugation. She was getting rather fond of the child, no doubt; and she certainly was as little trouble as a child could well be. But even if she had been troublesome, it was no more than right that somebody should take an interest in her, poor little thing! She thought it might be well to teach her her letters, — there seemed to be no likelihood of any one else doing so. She wondered whether she could lay her hand on the primer out of which she had learned her own. She was to take tea with Lucy that evening, and it happened that Lucy was storing a box of her books that ought to contain it. She would go over early and see about it.
It had got to be mid-winter by this time, and all the world was on runners, — the snow beaten down to a solid crust which nothing short of a February thaw would loosen. Arabella, walking home from Lucy’s at about nine o’clock, escorted by her architect brother-in-law, thought how exhilarating the frosty air was, and the gay jingle of the sleighbells, and the moonlight glittering on the snow; and it never once occurred to her to trace her good spirits to the well-thumbed primer that she held in her hand.
They stood a moment at the front door while she got out her latch-key. The halfgrown moon which was dipping into the west shone in under the piazza-roof, striking full upon the lower panel of the door; and as Frank took the key from her hand, with his little air of gallantry, — a foreign importation which she had never got quite used to, — “I don’t wonder you stuck to the old house, Arabella,” he remarked. “ That’s the finest front-door in Dunbridge.”
Such a tribute would ordinarily have been deeply gratifying to her, but she was thinking of something else just then.
“ Yes,” she assented, rather abstractedly, while she pulled off her gloves, and noticed how smooth the cover of the primer was worn. “It’s a very good door, but it wants painting.” And with that she bade him good-night and passed into the house.
Almost on the threshold the news met her: there had been an accident on the speedway — a runaway sleigh coming up behind. She had been in young Lambert’s cutter. There was no time to turn out. The pole had struck her in the back.
Was she much hurt ?
Oh, worse than that. It was all over an hour ago. Ed Lambert was beside himself, poor fellow; but he was not in any way to blame. They had brought her in at about six o’clock. She had never recovered consciousness.
And the child ? Where was the child ?
“ We’ve moved her little bed into your dressing-room,” Mrs. Wadley explained. “ We thought she’d sleep quieter there than if I’d took her in along o’ me, as I’d ha’ been glad to. I hope she won’t make you too much trouble. She must ha’ been asleep when I come away a few minutes ago. She did n’t say nothing.”
But Arabella had passed swiftly up the stairs, and had opened her door, very, very softly, — only that her heart was beating so loud that she trembled lest it should wake the child.
She had closed the door behind her, and was cautiously making her way across the room, when a wee, remote voice from over by the chimney-corner arrested her. Turning sharply, she beheld a strange and seizing apparition. There, in her accustomed place in the little armchair, just in the path of the moonlight, sat a small white wraith, shivering a bit, — for the thin cotton shift was never meant for such service, — waiting for Mis’ Pensey.
“ Mumma ’s deaded,” the wee voice whimpered. “ Mumma’s deaded.”
In an instant Arabella had her in her arms, and was folding her in the long, fur-lined cloak she herself wore.
“ You precious baby! ” she murmured brokenly, as she bore the pitiful little mourner across the room and, seating herself in her own mother’s high-backed invalid-chair, essayed to comfort her. “ You precious baby! ”
But, “ Mumma’s deaded,” the little thing grieved. “ Poor Mumma! ”
“ Yes, darling, yes. But it does n’t hurt to be deaded. It means just going fast asleep like little girls do, in their soft, warm beds.” And she wrapped her ever closer, tucking the cold little toes deep into the good warm fur.
Was it some dim, fleeting hint of the Great Mystery that had penetrated to the baby intelligence ? Or why then did the soft fur fail to console ?
“ Dimple feel bad,” the wee voice sobbed. “ Dimple feel bad! ”
“ There, there, Dimple! ” — it was the first time that name had ever passed those fastidious lips; but so much was due the “ deaded ” mother in that hour. “ Don’t cry! She must n’t cry! Mis’ Pensey’ll take care of her to-night.”
And crooning meaningless words of tender baby-talk, she held the child close and warm until it slept. Then, as the clinging form relaxed, and the catching sobs were hushed, she fell to pondering the strange wind of destiny that had driven the little waif to her sheltering arms. And she no more questioned its meaning than she would have questioned had it been her own baby, or her baby’s baby, nestling there in utter helplessness, like a spent dove, — spent and affrighted in the rude buffetings of its little gust of grief.
And when the child, sleeping fast, was safely tucked away in its white bed, Arabella drew up a chair and placed herself on guard beside her precious charge. Hour by hour she sat, erect and motionless, prolonging her vigil deep into the night. Now and again her thoughts would turn to the young mother, from whom she had always held herself sternly aloof, coldly disapproving; and with a sorrowful compunction she would recall certain appealing traits, scarcely noted at the time. A quick, upward glance of the eyes, — a ceaseless, ineffectual play of the fingers. There had been an odd trick of ending each phrase with a rising inflection, as if craving assent to a tentative statement, — an air of indecision, as of a rudderless cockle-shell adrift on the waters of volition. Arabella, who held fast to the doctrine of non-interference, did not even now believe that it had been in her power to steady that frail bark on its wavering course, but she found herself remorsefully washing that she had been just a trifle friendly with the foolish young thing. And there, in the midnight quiet, she entered into a solemn compact with herself, never to let the little one forget her mother; to cherish every gossamer thread of memory in the baby consciousness till, striking root in that sweet soil, it should flower into a fair and sacred image.
Sitting there, drawn in upon herself, Arabella had not noticed how cold the room was growing, till suddenly a sharp chill struck her, and she rose to fetch the cloak that she had laid aside. The movement changed the direction of her thoughts, restored her to her normal mood of practical efficiency. As she returned to her post, and, stooping, drew the coverlid more closely about the softly breathing form, her mind reverted with a thrill of pleasure to the little house in Green Street. What a pretty home it would make for the child, — that old house, with its funny nooks and crannies, its queer stair-landings, and the gay turkeyred curtains which it should be her very first concern to provide. What a pretty grass-plot for a child to play about in, — and the garden-beds! — there should be a special corner for her to dig in, and they would have plenty of the doubledaisies, pink ones and white, that were always in such a hurry to blossom.
And the old home ? The home to which she had clung with such fierce pertinacity all these years? As the dawn quickened in the little room, Arabella looked through the doorway into the great chamber beyond, thoughtfully considering each familiar feature of the dignified interior. What was it, after all, but a contrivance of wood and plaster that had served its turn, and would serve its turn again, for other occupants ? For herself, the eloquence of mere association had grown strangely dumb; the dead past, in so far as it was dead, had lost its magic. And as she leaned above the child, listening to its quiet breathing, — as she gently touched the little cheek, soft and humid with the sweet warmth of sleep, she knew that it was not for the sake of her own baby, nor of the baby that might have been, that she was to gather this little creature to her heart of hearts, but for love of the child itself.
And a few weeks later, when all legal formalities had been consummated, — when the house in Green Street was hers, and the child was hers, beyond peradventure, — then, and not till then did she apprise her astonished family of her new departure, — meeting remonstrances and congratulations alike with the initial argument, which to her thinking covered all possible ground for criticism: “ A boarding-house is no place for a child.”
And when the flurry of comment was safely weathered, there came a quiet evening, in the calm of which she could contemplate with just the right degree of wistful regret the dear old chamber so soon to be abandoned to strangers.
The child was playing about the room, making the most of the few minutes remaining before the inexorable bed-hour, — indulging Dolly too in one last gambol. Suddenly she glanced over at Arabella, whose thoughtfulness may well have taken on a semblance of melancholy. Laying Dolly down in the little chair, the child stood a moment, gravely studying this new aspect of her beloved friend. Then, very quietly, she drew near, and, with a quaint movement of sympathy, laid her little hand on Mis’ Pensey’s knee.
Touched by the gravity of the little woman, Arabella lifted her to her lap and, for the first time, and with the solemnity of a baptismal rite, accosted her as: “ Little Harriet Spencer.”
Whereupon that incalculable infant, airily brushing aside the momentous ceremony, looked straight up into Mis’ Pensey’s face, and, with adorable perversity, lisped: “ Kith Dimple! ”
And Arabella, baffled and disarmed by the sheer audacity of the little sprite, — beguiled too by a love surpassing the love of names and places, — bent that obdurate neck of hers, and meekly did the bidding of the child.