ESTHER BROWN came softly out of the bedroom and waited on the little porch, breathing unconsciously a sigh of relief. The whispered cry of the sick woman, the look on her white face, touched her with too sharp a pity. She was not unused to this pain of sympathy: so sensitive was her nature, that always she had only to come near the lives of others to feel their emotions of happiness or sorrow vibrating in herself. Nor would she have had it otherwise. Above all else, she desired to live, to be keenly, thrillingly alive to everything about her, whatever that might mean.
Life sought her out in unlikely places. Six weeks ago she had come with her husband and little daughter to this quietest of villages set in the hills, — from where she stood now she could see the cottage where she was staying, — and already her nearest neighbors had become for her a subject of absorbing interest.
Two women they were, Eliza Clark and her mother of eighty. Nature had not made the face of the daughter a mirror for emotions; but on that older face she had set such a seal of patience and dumb longing that the most casual eye would have been arrested. From the first, Esther, divining some hidden sorrow, had longed to bring comfort; but as yet she did not know what comfort was needed. To-day, as if at the approach of death, all but the essential had faded away; the look was intensified until the face almost told its own story.
The house, little and low and very old, stood on a rise of ground, from which, in the pleasant afternoon sunlight, she could look across gentle fields to the hills which cradled the village. Far down below gleamed a spot of blue. That was the ‘pond,’ which she could not see from her own house. She felt a sudden desire to go and sit beside the sparkling water.
A slow tapping sound made her look down. Rover, the old dog, warming himself in the sunshine, was wagging a greeting. She stooped to pat him, and he looked up at her in friendly fashion.
Eliza Clark came out and stood beside her. ‘She’s gone to sleep,’ she said in a low voice.
The two women moved away from the door to the other end of the porch, where their voices would not reach the sick woman.
‘She’s not so well this morning,’ went on Eliza. Her plain, large-featured face was working; she folded her arms tightly across her breast. ‘She did n’t know us then; you saw that. She just lies there and calls. To-day is the day,’ she added in a still lower whisper. ‘I’ve tried to keep it from her, but she knows. Is n’t that strange, don’t you think, when she hardly knows me? Early this morning she woke up and said, “It’s the tenth of July, Eliza”; and since then, every time she’s sort of lost herself, she’s called and called. It hurts me!’ cried Eliza impotently. She saw the question in Esther’s eyes. ‘You don’t know?’ sheasked. ‘But, of course, you would n’t know. You ’ve just come, and the people here don’t talk much. It was years ago, years, when I was — Hark!’ There was a faint sound from her mother’s room. ‘She can’t sleep, you see, poor mother!’ She went in noiselessly, and Esther could hear her crooning, ‘Hush, dear, hush! Yes, byand-by.’
Esther brushed away the tears. ‘I’ll go now,’ she thought, ‘and come back later when Faith has had her supper.’
At her own words, she started and looked about her with that quick sweep of the vision that mothers know. Then she hurried to the back of the house, calling softly, ‘Faith, Faith!’
There was no answer. She stood for a second, her eyes dilated, her hand at her throat. She had left the child playing in the yard when she went into the house five minutes ago. Five minutes — how long had she lost herself in the pitying contemplation of the two women? It seemed now an eternity since her eyes had rested on the adored little form playing among the daisies.
‘She’s not in the house,’ whispered Eliza from the doorway. ‘Look around the barn. She can’t have gone far; it’s only been a minute.’
Esther nodded. ‘No, she can’t have gone far. I’ll find her and take her home and then come back.’
She smiled up into Eliza’s face, though her heart was beating wildly. The barn stood at the left of the house, a little down the slope. She hurried out to it.
The child was not in sight. Here, away from the house, she called her loudly, a shrill note coming into her voice. Only the echo came back to her: ‘Faith, Faith!’ She looked down the white, dusty road that led to her own cottage, a quarter of a mile away. The child, tired of waiting, might have gone back to her father. She was safe then. But there was a chance —
The old dog had risen lazily from the porch and followed her. Now as she stood, uncertain what to do, he took a few rambling steps down the hill and looked back at her with a dim inquiry in his watery eyes. She looked past him down the long slope. And far off, the blue of the lake called her! ‘No, no,’ she whispered to herself, ‘it’s too far; she could n’t.' But all the time she was hurrying down the path, the dog more alert now, beside her. She knew of this lake, — Willow Pond they called it, — a little blue gem in the valley, with great willows bending over it. No children played there. The day she came to the village, some one had warned her of that treacherous water, dropping off suddenly from shallowness to unknown depths. Esther had never taken her three-year-old child to the place, lest the fascination of the rippling water should carry her back to it some time alone. ‘She didn’t come this way!’ The dog made a sudden bound to the side and stopped at something white. It was a little sunbonnet!
After that, she went in terrible plunges over the uneven ground, while the dog, left behind, followed more slowly. She was not crying: tears take strength and blind the eyes. She was not even thinking, unless those relentless pictures burning into her brain could be called thought. She had lost sight of the lake now. In a minute more, at a turn of the path, she would see it again. She would know then, perhaps. She would know surely, if she saw little footprints leading to the edge and not returning. That thought wrung from her one cry of agony. Then she sank to the ground, unable to take another step, for her cry had been answered by a child’s laugh, a ‘Here I am!’ — and running toward her in the sunlight was her baby.
Esther caught her in her arms, sobbing out her questions. ‘ Why did you, darling? Oh, why did you come so far?’
‘She’s not hurt,’ said a clear voice.
Esther started violently and looked up. A little girl, perhaps eight years old, dressed in a bright plaid frock, had come around the bend of the path and stood smiling at her, a shy little smile of reassurance and welcome. Her hair lay in glossy ringlets over her neck and about her fresh round face, half hiding her eyes, great bluish-gray eyes, with heavy, black lashes — quite the loveliest eyes Esther had ever seen. Even in her preoccupation she felt that, with the quick pang that beauty always brought to her.
‘She’s not hurt at all,’ the child repeated, speaking with the curious slowness which one often meets in sparsely inhabited rural districts, and which on her baby lips was delightful. ‘Just her feet are wet, and her skirts.’
‘Girl pulled Baby out,’ volunteered Faith.
‘You went in for her?’ cried Esther. ‘ Then you must be wet, too! ’
She put out her hand to feel the child’s clothing; but with a quick motion, like that of a bird too closely approached, the little girl darted aside.
‘No, I’m not wet,’ she said; ‘I just reached out and caught her little hand.’
She smiled at the baby and back at Esther, watching her with interest as she drew off the wet shoes and socks and rubbed the baby’s feet.
‘Wrap her in your skirt,’ she suggested; and laughed gleefully when Esther did so. ‘Now she’s warm and snug!’ The laugh died on her lips suddenly, and her soft face became almost stern. ‘That is wicked water,’ she said. Her eyes, gray a moment before, looked black. ‘It is cruel. It looks so blue and beautiful, and it calls to little children till they come to it from where they are, all safe at home, and they take one little step, two—’ She shivered. ‘It goes down, down, nothing to hold to, no one to help —’
Faith, frightened, burst into a wail. It came to Esther that perhaps the child had lost someone in the depths that she described with so shuddering a pain. She stretched out her hand; but at Faith’s cry, the little girl’s look had changed to one of tender satisfaction.
‘ But your baby was n’t hurt, the darling. She just started to wade out — and I had her! Only her shoes,’ she added anxiously, ‘ they’re wet, and such pretty shoes, too! Pretty things should n’t be spoiled. Do you mind?’
Esther fought back a wild desire to cry hysterically. ‘No, I don’t mind,’ she answered. She thanked the little girl, or tried to thank her, and the child listened with grave attention.
‘I’m so glad I was here,’ she said. ‘Often I’m not, but I love best of all to come and sit here in the sunshine, and to-day they let me.’
With the prettiest little air of pride, she looked down at her dress. Though rather oddly made, it was quite new.
‘What a pretty dress!’ said Esther, smiling. ‘And what dear little buckled slippers! ’
The child nodded assent, ‘Yes, I dressed up and came here. I did n’t know—’ She did not finish the sentence, but stood looking off seriously, while Esther watched her in silence. With every thought, the expression on the small face changed. ‘I’ll tell you a secret,’ she said, presently, turning to Esther with a wise little smile. ‘I don’t know for sure, but I think my mother’s coming to-day! I’m waiting for her now.’
‘Is your mother away? ’ asked Esther.
‘Away?’ The child regarded her steadily for a moment. Then she threw out her little empty hands. ‘Oh, I have n’t seen my mother for so long!’ she sighed, ‘and I want her!’
A chill struck at Esther’s heart. So that was it! The child’s mother was, of course, dead. Was it she who had been drowned in the treacherous lake? No doubt. Another thought filled her with immeasurable pity. The shock of the mother’s death had left its mark, never to be erased, on the tender mind of the child. In no other way could she interpret a strangeness she had vaguely felt from the first.
’But you have your father,’ she said soothingly, ‘and sisters?’
‘My father, but not any sister. And all the rest. But they ’re not my mother! ’
‘Muddie,’ said Faith, ‘I’m cold.’
‘Oh, my baby!’ cried Esther. How had she chanced to forget her, even for a moment? The afternoon was drawing to a close; already the air held a slight chill. ’I must take her home at once,’ she said hurriedly. ‘ But I must see you again, dear. Where shall I find you? Do you live near?’
‘Not near, but not so very far. It does n’t take long, if you know the way. But I’ll walk a little piece with you now.’
‘And you’re sure you’ll know your way home again?’
The child smiled a strange, brilliant smile. ‘How could I miss that?’ she cried.
Again Esther felt the chilling dread.
They walked on in silence and rather slowly. Esther could not put Faith down; the need of the little body clasped to her heart was imperative. But the weight held her back.
‘There’s the dog.’ cried the child in delight. ‘It’s almost like one I —’
‘It’s Rover,’ said Faith. ‘Come, Rover, Rover!’ she called.
Far ahead of them, the old dog was hurrying back to the house.
‘Come, Rover, Rover!’ echoed the little girl in her shrill sweet voice. ‘I like Rover for a dog’s name,’ she said, ‘and I like Faith for a little girl’s. What is your name?’
Esther told her name with the simplicity that always drew children to her.
‘And I like Esther for a grown lady,’ said the child.
‘And what is your name?’ asked Esther.
But with one of her instant changes, the child had bounded aside and was stooping over a flower. No suggestion now of anything sinister. She might have been a brilliantly colored butterfly, poising for a moment before it darted off into the bright air.
‘She’s beautiful,’ thought Esther. ’I ’d love a picture of her.’
They had come halfway up the slope. The Clarks’ house was in full view. The child stopped abruptly, her face very sober again.
‘I can’t go any farther,’she said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘But you’ll come some time,’ urged Esther, ‘or tell me how to find you? I’ll see you again?’
‘If I can; if they’ll let me,’ the little girl answered with sweet precision. ‘ Oh, listen,’ she murmured, ‘listen!’
Up from the church in the valley floated the clear sound of the bell that called the villagers to a moment of silent prayer. Esther bowed her face over her baby’s soft head, mingling broken words of gratitude with her prayers for a suffering world. As she prayed, she heard a whisper — scarcely that, the breath of a whisper, so sharp with joy that she opened her eyes: ‘ There’s my mother!’
She looked up the hill; no one was coming.
‘Where, dear?’ she asked. Her voice sounded curiously loud, as if she were speaking in some vast solitude.
She looked around. The child was no longer beside her. She called, ‘Little girl, little girl!’
‘Girl gone,’ said Faith, with light finality.
Esther clasped the child more closely in her arms and went on home. She attended to her wants quickly, urged by some nameless feeling to return at once to the other house.
As she opened the gate, she was conscious of a change. The house looked quiet and aloof. As she reached the porch, she heard Eliza Clark speaking quietly to someone else, heard a quiet answer; then Eliza came to the door.
’I found her,’ whispered Esther. ‘And your mother? ’
Eliza had been in the shadow. She stepped out now, and Esther could see that her face was very white and strangely majestic in a new calm.
‘I’m glad you found her,’ she said simply. ‘ I was frightened too. Mother — Mother’s gone.’
‘ Your mother! Not — ’
Eliza nodded. ‘I did n’t expect it so soon; I hoped to keep her. I wanted every second. Oh, you don’t know — ’ She paused a moment and then went on calmly. ‘For a while after you left, she lay whispering and calling just like you saw, sleeping a minute and then waking up and calling again, never quite herself. She was so weak she could not raise her head. And then the churchbell began to ring. She was dozing, but she started just the way you do when you’re called suddenly, and she raised herself half up in bed and stretched out her arms and said, “Mattie,” again, not pitiful and complaining, but in a real young, happy voice and as if she saw Mattie. It seemed almost a minute she sat like that, and then she fell back on the pillow and closed her eyes; but before she died she opened them just once and whispered, “Dear Eliza!”’ Slow, painful tears were coming into the woman’s eyes. ‘I’ve never begrudged her one thought of Mattie,’ she sobbed.
Esther held her closely. ‘ Mattie was your sister?’
Eliza faced her, calm once more. ‘Ah, I’ve never told you. But I’ll tell you now.’
They sat down in the gathering twilight. Esther could see that the recital was in some way a relief to the other; that to live again in the old accustomed sorrow eased her present pain. As for herself, she had borne too much in the last hours to listen attentively to the tale of another’s bygone grief, even the tale she had so wished to hear. Of the first sentences, only a few words came to her.
‘It was fifty years ago to-day,’ began Eliza slowly. ‘I was ten, and Mattie, my little sister, was seven, going on eight, and we lived here in this same house, which was n’t old then. One day, I was helping mother with the canning, and Mattie was out of doors playing. She loved to watch the birds and flowers and chase the butterflies or play with the dog. She was the lovingest little thing, crazy over animals and babies, but most of all she loved our mother. Only that morning she had stopped her play and run to mother and flung her arms tight about her, and mother had stood there, with her hands all juice from peaches, laughing down at her. It was a real picture: mother so young and happy-looking, — she was only thirty, — and Mattie so little and pretty. I remember after she ran out of doors, mother turned to me and said, “My good little helper! ” But I was n’t jealous. I was never jealous of Mattie.
‘By-and-by I glanced out of the window and there was Mattie running past. The little thing was all dressed up in a new dress that she was n’t supposed to wear until Sunday. My mother saw her too, and we both smiled. Mother took a step toward the door and then came back without telling her to come in and change it. She knew how Mattie loved pretty things. I suppose she just could n’t wait for Sunday. And she did look so sweet. Wait a minute; I’ll show you.’
Eliza Clark rose to her feet heavily and went into the house. It was very quiet outside. The sun had set at last; night was coming on. Again Esther felt that icy feeling at her heart. She had felt it earlier in the day; she had felt it when — She shivered and looked about her uneasily.
‘There,’ said Eliza, ‘there she is!’
She held in her hand an old photograph, a crude specimen of a new art. She gazed at it a moment, and then put it carefully into Esther’s hands.
Esther looked down, and choked back a cry. She found herself suddenly in a world that reeled and whirled, where there was no light or breath of air, for she had looked full into a pair of beautiful gray eyes, at a quaint oldfashioned dress, at a spirited grace of pose that no crudity of art could conceal. She had looked again at the Child of Willow Pond! Eliza’s words came to her from a great distance. She was losing herself, but she struggled back to consciousness. She must hear, she must know. She refused to let herself sink into the black depths of faintness that claimed her.
‘There she is,’ said Eliza, ‘just as she looked then. This was taken only a few weeks before, in the very dress she had put on that morning. It was a dear little plaid, made so prettily, we thought, though it looks odd now. See her pretty curls and her eyes. I always thought she had the loveliest eyes! And do you see the way she sort of rises out of the picture as if she were going to fly? That’s the way she always was.’ She sighed. ‘So little and pretty and young!
‘Well, we saw her go past, and then a few minutes later, — perhaps ten minutes, it surely was n’t any more, — we finished our work and went out. Mattie was not there. We looked and called the way you do, carelessly at first. Then we got awfully frightened, and my mother sent me for my father, and we hunted everywhere, calling. I can see my mother’s white face; it never looked young any more after that. We hunted all that day. Next day they even dragged the pond; but it is very deep. We never found her. Poor mother!’ said Eliza.
She stood looking off in silence. Her story told, she was taking up again her newer, heavier burden of grief.
‘ Will you come to see her?' she asked.
She went into the dimly lighted bedroom, and Esther, white and shaken, followed her. A neighbor, sitting there, rose and went out softly, and the two came to the bedside and looked down. The face on the pillow was scarcely whiter than when Esther saw it last, but it had changed. The look of sadness was gone, and in its place was a smile of tenderest joy. As she gazed, Esther felt the wild terror of the last few minutes slipping from her. She had had a strange, momentary glimpse of another world, yes, but it was to the everlasting strengthening of her soul. She was interpreting it now by the beauty of the aged face before her. Where the soul of this frail woman had gone forth, there were peace and safety — and eternal goodness. She heard again the ripple of her child’s laughter.
‘It was just as the bell rang,’ repeated Eliza. ‘She raised herself up on the pillow, real strong for a minute, and she put out her arms and called Mattie. Her face looked as if the sun were shining upon it. And then she just sank back and spoke to me. And all the time the church-bell was ringing. It was a good way to go. She’s happy now, she — and Mattie.’
She looked questioningly at the other.
‘ Yes,’ answered Esther. ‘ Listen, dear Miss Eliza.’
She drew her tenderly out on the little porch.