I HAD been on the train for hours and was very tired. All morning I had seen only a level, thinly wooded country, never beautiful or picturesque. The magazine with which I had armed myself, fondly imagining that it would be a protection against the tedium of a six-hour trip, had proved dull to a degree that defies expression. There was no one to talk to, for the only other passengers were a fat woman who slept most of the time, and, when she was awake, read a novel and languidly munched peanuts, and four traveling salesmen who harped on boots and shoes and notions until I became so weary listening to them that I firmly resolved that, come what might, I would never again use any of the things they sold.
At one o’clock, having finished my luncheon, I sank back in my seat and looked out of the window, thinking irritably how I must be bored for another hour. The train was then standing at a country station exactly like thirty or forty others we had passed during the morning. What looked to be the same stiff-legged station-master was hurrying back and forth; the same shabbily dressed men loafed about; the same small boys ran hither and thither in every one’s way; the same young girls giggled, and nudged one another, and giggled again.
Turning from my window with a long-drawn sigh, I saw that a little girl had got on the train and was taking the seat across the aisle from mine. What impressed me most in that first glance was her quaint primness. Her hair hung down her back in the neatest of long braids, and was fastened with the neatest of small black bows. Her stiffly starched gingham dress was spotless and her gloves looked like new. She had a sweet, round, rosy little face, but it was graver than any other child’s I have ever seen. Watching her, I wondered if she ever played, if she ever broke her toys and tore her clothes and forgot to do the things she had been told but a moment before, like many, many, dear, naughty little girls I know.
Interested by the quaintness of the child, I reopened my magazine and watched her from behind it. As soon as she was seated she carefully arranged her belongings on the seat facing her: a satchel, a box, and a large apple. She took off her hat, and spying a newspaper which I had thrown aside, asked me for it. ‘Perhaps the dust would spoil the flowers,’ she said. ‘I don’t like to run the risk.’
I asked her a few questions then. She was not shy, and was evidently inclined to be friendly, for as soon as she had disposed her belongings to her sat - isfaction, she crossed the aisle and sat beside me.
‘I want to keep my hat as nice as new, because mamma trimmed it herself. Papa and I think it is the beautifulest hat we have ever seen. We are very proud of it. You see, mamma is sick all the time. She can’t even sew except once in a great while. She has awful pains, and she is weak, and can hardly ever get out of bed, so papa and I are very good to her and take care of her all we can. She says we spoil her, but she’s only joking, don’t you think so? It’s only children that get spoiled, is n’t it?’
I said that I believed so; and after a moment, to break the silence that followed, I asked her if she had any brothers and sisters. I felt certain that she had not. She would have been less staid had she been accustomed to the companionship of other children.
‘ I had three brothers,’ she answered, ‘but they all died before I was born, and two little sisters — twins; and they died when they were just one hour old.’ She looked puzzled after she had said this and an instant later she corrected herself: —
‘The twins really were n’t old at all; they were just — just one hour young’ And having settled this point to her satisfaction, she looked into my face and added seriously, ‘I have often thought about it. I believe that when my brothers and sisters came they did not like it here, so God did n’t make them stay, but took them straight to heaven.’
‘And you liked it, and did stay,’ I said, drawing my conclusion from her premises.
‘I? Oh, I like it pretty well. Sometimes things are inconvenient, and they’re often uncomfortable, but it is n’t bad if you have people to be good to.’
She lapsed into silence after this, and resting her chin on her hand stared thoughtfully through the window. Eager to hear more of her strange little thoughts, I racked my brain for something to say, and at last, nothing startling or original suggesting itself, I asked, ‘Have you been long away from home? ’
‘For four weeks. Mamma got so sick she had to be taken to a hospital, and then papa sent me to stay at grandma’s.’
‘And of course she has been spoiling you — after the manner of grandmothers!’ I said, smiling.
The child looked doubtful, and made no direct answer. After a time she explained in her quaint, decided way, —
‘ Mothers and grandmothers are different. Grandmothers give little girls cookies and they don’t tell them to go to bed at half-past seven; but they have n’t such good ways of tucking people in bed, and their kisses are n’t the same.
‘I did n’t know until yesterday that I was going home to-day,’ she went on after a scarcely perceptible pause. ‘I had a hard time to get presents for mamma. I had made two daisy chains; they were ready; and all day yesterday I was trying to think of some other things that would be nice and could n’t make her tired. Papa and I always try not to let her grow tired, but she often does, anyhow.’
She crossed the aisle, and getting the box I had noticed when she entered the car, opened it and proudly displayed two chains of withered daisies, a bird’s egg wrapped in cotton, several picture cards, and a stiff, new cotton handkerchief with a gorgeous border. ‘All these are for her!’ she said. ‘The daisies have faded but she won’t mind that. I know, because once before I made her a daisy chain and it withered before I got home, but she liked it as it was. She really liked it very much. She told me so, and even if she had n’t I could have told from the way she smiled. A big boy gave me the bird’s egg. Then, I had a nickel grandma gave me last week, and for a long time I could n’t decide whether to buy this handkerchief or a pin with a diamond in it; but papa gave her a pin on her birthday and she’s never had any kind of handkerchiefs except plain white ones: that’s what decided me. This one is very pretty, don’t you think so?'
I blinked at the flaming colors and murmured something noncommittal.
The child hardly paused for breath before she continued her quaint chatter. She loved to talk, and as I was only too glad to have some one — any one — to listen to, all went well.
‘It seems a long time since I left papa and mamma. I can hardly wait to see them. I was never away from home before. Do you think she’s well enough to be at the station? She ’s been at a hospital, you know, and papa says that a hospital’s a place where they make people well.’
I told her not to count on finding her mother grown quite strong in so short a time.
‘Is n’t it wonderful how things happen just when you don’t expect them to!’ she exclaimed, not heeding my warning in the least. ‘When I got out of bed yesterday morning I did n’t know I was going to see her and papa so soon! I was just throwing them a kiss from my window when grandma called me. She had been crying, and she told me that papa wanted me at home. I suppose it was because she was going to lose me that she cried. I’d been very good to her. But I did n’t feel a bit like crying. I was glad all inside of me. And by and by Mrs. Dodge, who knew mamma when she was no bigger than I am, she came to see grandma and they talked and talked, and she cried too. I saw her. I think she must have caught the tears from grandma like I did the measles from our butcher’s little boy.’
As she chattered my heart grew heavy. I understood that her mother was dead; buried, too, no doubt. Poor motherless child! Poor, poor child! And she had no suspicion of the truth. She was all eagerness, all hope.
When we reached R——we got off the train together, but the moment she caught sight of her father she forgot my existence. I looked at him with keen, sympathetic interest. He appeared to be almost fifty years of age. His face was kindly and rather handsome. He lifted his little girl into his arms and almost smothered her with kisses; then they walked away, hand in hand, and I lost sight of them in the crowd. I was not sorry. I wondered how he could tell her.
Ten minutes later, having attended to my baggage, I passed out of the station and saw them again. The father had lifted the child on the low stone wall that runs along that side of the building, and was talking to her, gently and seriously. Her big eyes were fastened on his and great tears were pouring unheeded over her cheeks. She still held her apple. The box was tucked under one arm, but the lid was gone and the precious daisy chains were hanging out of it. She did not see me, and I hurried past them.
My car was long in coming, and feeling restless I walked a square or two and let it overtake me. When I seated myself in it I found to my regret that I was face to face with the father and child. She was as pale as he now; her hat hung uncherished at the back of her neck, and from time to time tears rolled down her checks. I have never seen another face bespeak such utter desolation.
Her father held one of her hands tightly clasped in his, but for some minutes neither of them spoke. Once or twice she did try to ask him something, but although she opened her lips, no sound came.
At length he said gently, ‘You’ll have to be very good to me now, Ruth. There’s no one else to take care of me.’
She looked up at him then. Her eyes brightened a little and a faint smile spread slowly over her tearstained face. ‘Yes, papa,’ she answered, with a little motherly air; and sighed, and snuggled closer to him.
After a second she spoke again, rather more briskly, ‘You’d better eat this apple right away. You have n’t had your dinner, and it’s afternoon. You might get sick, if you are n’t more careful.’
He took the apple and obediently tried to eat some of it, and Ruth watched him with satisfaction. ‘I’m going to take such good care of you!’ she whispered.