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Grace Livingston Hill
First published in 1937
Copyright © 2018 Classica Libris
Marjorie Wetherill had always known she was an adopted child. She had been told when she was so young that it meant nothing at all to her. And as the years went by and she was surrounded by love and luxury, she thought little of it. Once when she was in high school she had asked about her birth family casually, more out of curiosity than because of any felt need for them, and she had been told that they were respectable people who had been unfortunate and couldn’t afford to bring her up as they would like to have her brought up. It had all been very vague. But Marjorie was happy, and her adoptive mother greatly stressed the fact that while Marjorie had not been born her own, she had been chosen because they loved her at first sight, and that meant more even than if she had been born theirs.
As Marjorie grew older, however, she wondered now and then how a mother, if she had a true mother heart, could bear to give up her child. It seemed an unnatural thing, to surrender her permanently that way and promise never to see her again. But there was even uncertainty as to whether her mother was still living. And so the thought passed by and the happy days of her girlhood went on.
Mrs. Wetherill was a devoted parent, and she and Marjorie were dear companions. It scarcely seemed real to Marjorie that there had ever been any other mother, and as for another father, he wasn’t even sketchily in the background.
When Mr. Wetherill died, Marjorie was still in her school life, and she and her mother were brought even closer together, so that when Mrs. Wetherill was suddenly stricken with an illness that they both knew would be swift and fatal, the girl spent the last months of her adoptive mother’s life in utmost devotion to her. When it was over and she was alone, Marjorie felt utterly desolate, and life seemed barren indeed.
There were many friends, of course, for the Wetherills had a large, pleasant social circle, and there were instant invitations for prolonged visits here and there, but Marjorie had no heart to go. She longed for someone of her own. The world seemed empty and uninteresting.
People told her that feeling would pass, and she tried to believe them, but she fell to wondering more and more about her birth family and wished she knew whether any of them were living, and where. She wished she had asked more about them.
Then one morning, about ten days before Christmas, because she could not settle to anything else, and because she had been almost dreading to go over her beloved mother’s intimate papers, she went bravely to Mrs. Wetherill’s desk in the living room, unlocked it, and began to look over the papers in the pigeon-holes.
The old lawyer had gone over all the papers of the estate with her, those that were kept at the bank, and there was nothing to worry about as far as money was concerned. The entire Wetherill estate was left to her without a question, and it was a comfortable fortune. The income was ample for any possible needs.
But this desk was where Mrs. Wetherill used to write her social and friendly letters, and seemed a very intimate part of her. Marjorie had known that sooner or later she must go over everything and put away or destroy the things their owner would have wished disposed of. In fact, Mrs. Wetherill had given her careful instructions about it.
But as she went from drawer to drawer, emptying every pigeonhole and burning in the fireplace such things as had to be destroyed, she came finally to the little secret drawer, and there she found among several other important papers, a thick letter for herself.
In great surprise, for she had not known of any such letter, she began to read it, the quick tears springing to her eyes as the precious handwriting seemed to bring back the dear one who had left her.
There is something that perhaps I should have spoken of long ago, but did not, and I feel as if I must leave some word about it behind for you when I go. I cannot bring myself to talk about it to you and spoil our last brief days together, but I feel that it is something you should know.
I have never told you much about your birth family. I did not really know much myself to tell, until about two years ago. My husband arranged everything about the adoption. He wanted me not to be troubled with details. He wanted me to feel that you were my own dear child, not adopted. So I never asked much about the facts.
I saw you first in the hospital. We were going through looking for a baby we could adopt, and when I saw you in the ward, I fell in love with you, only to find you were not for adoption.
I never told you that you were one of twins. I did not want you to be drawn away from me by other ties. Perhaps I was selfish in that. I begin to feel now that I was. But anyhow it is past and cannot be undone. However, I feel that you should know. If you feel like blaming me I beg you to be pitiful, for I loved you.
You were a very beautiful baby, and so was your twin sister, yet she had a frailer look than you, and we found upon questioning that she had little chance to live unless she could have an operation and special treatment, which your parents were unable to give her.
But though neither of you were candidates for adoption, yet I had set my heart upon you. After seeing you, all the other babies looked common to me. So, my husband set about it to see what he could do. He discovered that your father was not strong and needed to get away to the country where he could have light work and be out of doors. My husband finally put it up to your mother while she was still in the hospital that she should give her consent to our adopting you, Mr. Wetherill agreeing to finance the treatment of both your father and little sister, and to make it possible for your family to live on a nice little farm where they could be able to support themselves until better days came.
These details I did not know at the time. I only knew that to my great joy you were mine at last, adopted according to law, your parents signing over all rights and promising not to try to see you without our consent.
Once, when you were about three months old, your mother wrote me, begging that she might come and see you, but I persuaded her that it would be better for us all if she did not, that it would be easier for her not to have seen you. Your father—Mr. Wetherill—went to see your own father and had some sort of an understanding with him, so that they did not come near us or write any more. So the years went by, and I was very happy with you. My dear, you know that you have always been to me all that a child born to me could have been, and perhaps a little more, because I had picked you out from all the babies in the world to be mine.
It was not until after my husband died that I heard again of your birth family. It seems they had saved and saved, and gathered together enough to pay back all the money that Mr. Wetherill had given them when he adopted you, and they wrote begging Mr. Wetherill to accept it and to allow them to come and see you at least occasionally.
I sent the money back, of course, and wrote very firmly refusing their request, feeling that it would be most disastrous. I had no idea just what kind of people they were, and I felt it might hurt your life.
But then, about a year ago, just as you were graduating from Miss Evans’s School, your mother came to see me.
I was surprised at what a lovely, frail little woman she was. She was very plainly dressed, but she looked neat and pretty, and she had eyes like yours. It went to my heart. She said sometimes she could not sleep at night, thinking that she had given you up. She said it seemed at times as if she would go crazy thinking of things she might have done instead, to raise the money to save the lives of her husband and other child, and yet keep you.
I really felt very sorry for her. She looked so much like you that I began to feel like a criminal. She wanted to see you. But I would not let her. I felt it would be a catastrophe for you at your time of life. Your big photograph taken in your graduating dress was on the desk and I showed it to her, and finally gave it to her. You wondered what had become of it and I had to make up a story about something being the matter with the frame till I could get another.
She went away sobbing, and I have never forgotten it. When I have looked at you, and thought of her, I have felt like a criminal. I ought to have let her see you. I had no right to come between a mother and her child, no matter what she may have been, although she seemed quite lovely and respectable.
And now that I am about to die, I feel that I should leave behind me this information so that you may do what you wish in the matter. Perhaps you will want to do something for your own mother. You will have quite a fortune, my dear, and you are free to do what you wish with it, of course.
After your mother had gone away I sent her quite a generous check, but she returned it by the next mail and sent with it also the amount of money which your father—which my husband—had given your own father. I felt quite badly about that. It seemed to put me very much in the debt of your parents.
But now I am leaving the matter in your hands, my dear, and if you feel there is anything you would like to do, or if you want to grant your mother’s wish to see you, I want you to know that I am willing. I think perhaps I have sinned in this matter, and I want to make it right if I can. So I am giving you your mother’s name and address. Do whatever your heart dictates.
You already know how much I have loved you, how I love you as my own, and so I need not say it again. If you feel, dear child, that I have done wrong, I beg you to forgive me, for I have loved you greatly, and I have tried to do my best for you in every other way.
Your loving mother,
May D. Wetherill
Below was an address in an eastern city:
Mrs. John Gay, 1465 Aster Street
And below that, in pencil, had been written uncertainly as if with an idea of erasing it:
The name by which they called you was Dorothy.
So then she was no longer Marjorie Wetherill but Dorothy Gay. How strange and fantastic life was turning out to be!
She bowed her head on the letter and wept. First for the only mother she had known, and then for the mother she had not known. How pitiful it all seemed! So many little babies in the world without homes, and yet she should have been loved so intensely by two mothers!
Her heart burned for the mother she had always known, whose conscience had troubled her, and then ached for the other mother who wanted her and might not have her! What a strange world, and a strange happening, that this should come to her! That suddenly her safe, secure world should crumble all about her, death and change and perplexity staring her in the face.
And yet, she didn’t have to pay any attention to this letter. Nobody but herself knew of it. She could go right on living her life apart from them, living in this lovely home that the Wetherills had left her, forgetting her birth family, as she had always done. They had practically sold her out of their lives, hadn’t they? They had no real claim upon her. And, of course, they might be embarrassing! There was no telling what they were. She had nothing to give her a clue to what they were, except that her mother’s eyes were like hers.
Then suddenly a thrill came to her heart. But they were her very own, whatever they were! How wonderful that would be! And her mother had wanted her, enough to come a long distance to see her!
All the rest of the day the thought of her birth mother hovered in her mind and grew into a great longing to go to her; yet somehow it seemed disloyalty to the mother and father who had brought her up and had chosen to keep her in ignorance of her birth family.
It was not until she had read Mrs. Wetherill’s letter over carefully several times that she began to see that the letter really was a permission, if not even a plea, for her to do something about her birth family. As she began to read more and more between the lines of the letter, she felt that there was something demanded of her as a daughter that she should have done long ago.
That night she could not sleep and lay staring about in the darkness of her room—the room that Mrs. Wetherill had made so beautiful for her—realizing how safe and sweet and quiet it all was here, and how many complications there might be if she broke the long silence between herself and her own family. Yet the longing in her heart increased, to see them, even to find out the worst possible about them, just to have them for her own. Not to be alone in the great world.
There was a sister, too, and how wonderful it would be to have a sister! She had always wished for a sister. Or—perhaps the sister had not lived after all! The letter said she was delicate. Perhaps she had died. Perhaps that was the reason why her mother wanted her. Perhaps she had no others to love her and comfort her. Perhaps the father might be dead too!
Marjorie buried her face in her pillow and wept.
The morning mail brought two invitations to spend Christmas week with friends.
Christmas was only ten days off, and it loomed large and gloomy. The thought of Christmas without the only mother she had ever known seemed intolerable.
One of the invitations was from a distant cousin of Mrs. Wetherill’s, a kindly person with a large house, given to entertaining. The other was from an old schoolmate living in Boston. Both invitations spelled gaiety and good cheer, but they somehow did not appeal to her now. Her grief was too recent, and her feeling of loneliness too poignant to be diminished by mingling with a giddy throng of pleasure-seekers. In fact, that kind of Christmas never did appeal to her at any time. She liked simpler pleasures. Besides, her heart was too restless just now to plunge into worldliness and try to forget her loss.
All day she went about trying to make a decision, now almost deciding to accept one of the invitations and end her uncertainty, now playing with the idea of going to search out her birth family and learn once for all what they were like.
But when she reasoned that perhaps forgetting was best for the present, and tried to decide which invitation she should accept, she realized that she didn’t feel like going to either place.
Oh, of course they would all be very kind and put themselves out to make her have a good time, but Christmas couldn’t be Christmas this year, no matter how it was planned.
She was still in her unsettled state of mind when evening came and Evan Brower arrived to call upon her.
The Browers were one of the best old families, and among the closest friends of the Wetherills. Evan Brower was three or four years older than Marjorie, and though she had known him practically all her life, it had not been until the last year that he had paid her much attention. Mrs. Wetherill had been very fond of him, and of late he had been often at the house, one of the closest friends Marjorie had. Yet the two were still on the basis of friendship, nothing closer.
Marjorie was glad of his coming as a relief from the perplexities that had been with her all day, and smiled a real welcome as he took her hand in greeting.
“You are looking tired and white!” he said, scrutinizing her face sharply. “You need a change, and I’ve come to offer one. Mother wants you to come and stay a couple of weeks with her. She thought you might like to help her get ready for the family gathering at Christmastime. It will take your mind off your loneliness. You know your mother would never want you to mope. Mother thought maybe you would come over tomorrow and just consider you are on a visit.”
Marjorie’s heart sank. Here was the question again! And a family gathering! The hardest kind of a thing to go through, with this thought of her own unknown family in the back of her mind. Suddenly she knew she could not go anywhere till that matter was settled! She had to know just where she stood before ever she went among people again. She lifted her eyes to Evan’s kindly, pleasant face and tried to decline his offer in a gracious way.
“Oh, that is dear of your mother, Evan!” she said. “I do appreciate it a lot, and some other time I’d love to come, but just now I don’t feel I could.”
He settled down comfortably to combat her, just as if he had expected to have to do so.
“Now, you know that isn’t a bit sensible, Marjorie. There’s no point in stretching out your grief. You’ve got to go on living, and you know perfectly well your mother would want you to be happy.”
“Yes,” said Marjorie sweetly. “I know, and I’m not stretching out my grief. Mother and I talked it over together, and she told me all that. I understand, and I don’t intend to mope. But somehow I don’t feel I can stand gaiety just yet. I’ve had two other invitations but I’m declining them both—”
Marjorie hadn’t been quite sure till this minute what she was going to do, but now it was all very clear in her mind.
“But, Marge, it’s only our house. It’s almost like home, you know. It isn’t as if we were going to have a lot of strangers either. There will be just the cousins and aunts and uncles. You’ve always known them, and Mother intends to plan it all very quietly. I’m sure there won’t be anything to upset you. If you find it’s too much I’ll take you off in the car to some quiet place for a few hours and rest you up, and you really must see it will be better for you than moping around here in this lonely house.”
“You’re very kind!” said Marjorie with a troubled gaze, but more and more certain that she wasn’t going to accept. Then suddenly she lifted frank eyes to his.
“You see, Evan, there’s something I have to do first before I can go anywhere and begin life again.”
“Something you have to do? What do you mean?” He turned puzzled, dominating eyes upon her.
Marjorie hesitated, then spoke decisively. After all, he was her good friend, why not confide in him? Perhaps he could advise her.
“You know I’m an adopted child, don’t you? You’ve always known that, haven’t you, Evan?”
A startled, almost cautious look came into his eyes.
“Why—yes, of course, but what has that got to do with it? You don’t mean, Marjorie, that after all these years your mother has cut you out of the property she promised you? I heard her say myself that she was leaving you everything. You don’t mean that she tied it up or anything?”
Marjorie laughed and drew a deep breath.
“Oh, no, nothing like that, Evan. I’m very comfortably fixed, of course.”
A relieved look came into the young man’s handsome eyes.
“Well, then, why worry?” he said playfully, and his hand stole across and dropped familiarly, warmly, down upon hers.
They were sitting on the deep couch, Marjorie at one end, Evan near the other, but now he leaned across with a comforting manner and looked into her eyes.
She was quite serious as she answered him.
“It’s not money worries,” she said. “It’s something entirely different. It’s my family. My birth family, I mean.”
“Your birth family?” He looked at her, startled. “Have they dared turn up and annoy you?”
“Oh, no!” she said quickly. “Of course not!”
“Why ‘of course not’? They likely would, if they knew you were alone and unprotected. A girl with a fortune is never quite safe alone. You ought not to stay a night alone here!”
“Why, I’m not alone!” said Marjorie. “The servants would protect me with their lives if there were need. I’m quite safe. But it’s absurd, Evan, for you to talk that way about my birth family! Don’t, please! It hurts me!”
“Hurts you?” he said, looking at her incredulously. “Hurts you to hear that people you never saw in your life, and about whom you know nothing, might possibly have some motives that were not of the best?”
“They are my own people, Evan!”
“Nonsense! Nothing of the kind!” said Evan, lifting his well-modeled chin haughtily. “You are no more connected with them than I am. They gave you up! I should think you would never want to see or hear of them! I should say you are fortunate that they are not troubling you. Let sleeping dogs lie! You have no obligation whatever toward them!”
Something about the harshness of his tone made Marjorie give a little shiver and draw her hand quietly away from under his.
“I don’t feel that way, Evan!” she said gently, marveling that after her hours of doubt she suddenly felt clear in her mind about the matter. “You don’t know all about it, or you wouldn’t say that either, I’m quite sure. Mother left a letter telling me about them and suggesting that I might want to hunt them up and see if there was anything I could do for them.”
“And I still say, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie,’ ” said Evan coldly. And then he laid his hand once more on hers in a possessive way, as if he owned her.
“Of course, if you were anxious to do a little something in a quiet way for them, it could be arranged anonymously,” he added. “I would be glad to see to that for you, and it might ease your conscience, since you seem to be distressed about the matter. But on no account let them know that you have done anything for them. They will just be after you all the time, begging and whining, and making your life a misery. They are all suckers, those people! They never cared anything for you or they wouldn’t have sold you in the first place. And now you are a being of another world than theirs, and they have no right to intrude into your life and try to get your property away from you! I insist—!”
Marjorie drew her hand decidedly away from under his again and stood up, her own chin lifted defiantly, her eyes bright and indignant.
“Evan! You must not talk that way! You simply don’t understand at all. I thought you were my friend and I could talk it over with you, but you don’t seem willing to listen. I’m sorry I mentioned it, but since I have started, I must finish. I tell you, Mother left me a letter in which she tells me more about my people than I ever knew, and than she ever knew until a few months before Father died. I think she meant to tell me, but found it hard to talk about, and so left this letter. She gives me all the circumstances of my adoption and how my birth mother afterward was grieved that she had given me up and begged to see me, and—”
“Yes! Exactly! Didn’t I tell you? People like that can never honorably abide by a bargain—”
“Please don’t interrupt me, Evan. You must hear me to the end. Mother felt I ought to know about everything, and that I was free to do what I liked about hunting up my people and doing everything I liked for them. She says in the letter that they positively refused money. Sent back a check that she sent them!”
“Oh, probably only a fine gesture!” sneered Evan. “My dear, trust me! I know that class of people—”
“Be careful, Evan,” said Marjorie, drawing herself up. “Please don’t say any more! It is my own mother and father you are talking about! This is something I have to work out myself. I’m sorry I said anything about it until I had made my decision.”
“But, darling, be reasonable!” said Evan, softening his voice. Marjorie didn’t even notice he had called her “darling.” It was such a common phrase of the day and Evan was a very close friend. But his voice was less aggressive now, more gentle. He got up and stood beside her, taking her hands in his and drawing her nearer to him. “Listen, little girl! If you are really serious about this thing, of course it will have to be investigated. I still think it would be better not, but if you have set your heart on it, I beg you will let me do the investigating for you. I am a lawyer. I know how to protect your interests, and I will do whatever you want done conscientiously. I am sure you can trust me, Marjorie. I love you, don’t you know it, little girl?”
She looked up at him, startled. It was the first time he had ever spoken of love. He had just been a good friend, somewhat as she supposed a brother might be, only more polite than some brothers. One who would protect and advise and care for her when she needed it. And even now she was not sure but it was just in this way he meant that he loved her, as a man might love a dear sister whom he wanted to guide and protect. But somehow he had created a doubt in her mind as to his full willingness to understand and do all that she needed now. She could not get away from the harshness in his voice when he had said, “Let sleeping dogs lie!” The very words by which he had hoped to turn her away from her purpose had served to clarify her decision and give her a certain loyalty to these unknown ones of her family.
Her eyes searched his for an instant, keenly, doubtfully. There was a light in his own as he looked possessively down at her now that seemed to be different from any look she had ever noticed there before, but it did not stir her deeply. She tried to think that perhaps this was the rest she sought, Evan’s love and care, but the thought failed to bring any joy or rest. If this was love, she wasn’t ready for it yet, not until she had found out the whole truth about her people.
She drew back and tried gently to take her hands away from his clasp, but he held them firmly and drew her closer.
“Dear little girl!” he said suddenly, putting his face down and laying his cheek against hers, seeking her lips with his own and pressing a kiss upon them.
For an instant she yielded herself to that embrace, her lips to that kiss, but only an instant so brief it might scarcely have been recognized by the man as yielding. For suddenly she sprang away and put out her hands in protest.
“No, please, not now! I can’t think of such things now!”
He snatched at her hands again, trying to draw her back quietly to his embrace.
“Poor child!” he said, kissing her fingers gently. “Don’t you realize that this is where you belong, in my arms? Don’t you love me?”
“I don’t know!” said Marjorie, turning unhappy eyes away from him. “I haven’t ever thought of you in this way. And my heart is full of so many other things now.”
“I know, poor child!” he continued. “But you do love me. I’m sure you do. I’ve seen it in your eyes a thousand times when you have looked at me. You love me, only you haven’t recognized it as love yet! But I will teach you what love means!”
And he suddenly drew her close again and pressed hot kisses on her lips.
But now she sprang away again, covering her face with her hands.
“No! No!” she cried out. “I will not let you kiss me until I am sure, and I am not now! Please, won’t you go away and let me think? My mind is so tired and all mixed up!”
“Poor child!” he said gently. “I am sorry if I have seemed to hurry you. I only wanted to show you that I am your natural protector. But I am willing to wait, to go slow, till your sorrow is not so sharp. I only ask one thing of you, and that is that you will not make any move in this matter of your family till you have talked with me again. That you will think it over, and if anything has to be done you will let me handle it for you. Will you promise?”
Marjorie was still for several seconds, looking down at her hands clasped tightly before her. Then she said slowly, seriously, “I will promise to think over what you said. Everything that you have said.”
She looked up at him quietly and smiled a cold little wistful smile. Then she added, “I’m sorry to seem so uncertain and so unappreciative of your love. But I just can’t seem to think tonight!”
“Well, that’s all right, little girl!” he said, and his voice was very gentle again, as if he were talking to a child who didn’t quite understand. “I know you’ve been terribly upset, and I don’t want to rush you. But I do want you to understand that you can come to me for everything!”
“Thank you!” she said simply, but her face looked white and tired.
He was a wise young man, and he saw that he couldn’t get any further tonight.
“Well, then, we’ll say good night. Are you going to let me kiss you again?”
“Please, no,” she said, with a troubled protest in her eyes.
“All right,” said the young man gravely. “It shall be as you wish, but I wish you would consider that we are engaged. I’d like to put a ring on your finger tomorrow and feel that you are my promised wife.”
Marjorie turned her head away and looked troubled again.
“I can’t think of these things now!” she said. “Please let us be just friends, as we have always been!”
He studied her for a moment, and then his lips set in a firm line of determination.
“Very well,” he said quite cheerfully. “I am just your friend for now, but a very special friend, you know. One whom you can call upon for anything. Will you feel that?”
She smiled with relief.
“Yes,” she said. “Thank you! Good night!” and she put out her hand and gave his a brief, impersonal clasp.
Then he was gone, and she stood alone, looking down at the gardenias he had brought and wondering why she had not thrilled to his touch. Why, somehow, her feeling of his friendliness had been lost in a new something that she did not understand nor want. Not now, anyway.
Marjorie found she was too excited to sleep when she laid her head on her pillow. But strangely enough, it was not on the eager protests of love that her mind dwelt most during that night’s vigil, but more on Evan’s insistence that she should not search out her people. And the more she thought of it, the less she thought of him.
Still, she knew that was not fair either. If Evan really loved her as he said he did, it might be natural, if not noble, at least for her sake, to wish to protect her against anything that might annoy or embarrass her. And yet, the more she faced the possibility that her family might be embarrassing, the more she felt it her duty to search them out and know the truth.
After all, even if she wanted to accept the love that had been offered her—and she wasn’t at all sure that she did—it was all so new and unexpected, and her reaction to it was tempered by his utter distaste for having her birth family in her background. Could she honestly marry any man without knowing the truth about her family?
And, of course, she could not get away from the fact that they were her parents and had a right to a place in her life, whether she or her friends or anybody else wanted them there or not. What that place was to be must be decided before she went on another step in life. No other questions of life or love or future happiness could be settled until she dealt with that. And she would have to deal with it alone. No one else could settle it for her.
She awoke in the morning with the definite purpose in her heart to get the matter over with at once. She would start right away before anything else could possibly delay her. If any more people came in and tried to turn her from her purpose she would become bewildered again.
She dressed hastily and sat down at her desk at once, determined to burn all bridges behind her. She wrote charming little notes declining all her invitations, and then wrote to Evan Brower.
I have kept my promise and thought over carefully the matter of which we were speaking last evening, and have decided that I must visit my family at once. When I come back I hope to be able to talk about the question more intelligently.
Please don’t think I do not appreciate your kind thought for me, but I feel that this is a question I must investigate and decide for myself, and I must settle it before I do anything else.
I have written your mother, thanking her for her kind invitation and telling her how sorry I am that it doesn’t seem possible for me to visit her just now.
I shall probably return sometime after New Year’s Day, or perhaps sooner if I get homesick. But I will let you know when I get back.
Thank you for all your kindness, and I’m trusting that you will try to understand.
She felt better when the notes were written. It seemed as if she were already started on her journey. But she decided not to mail them until just as she was leaving. She did not want anybody coming in to try to hinder her. Evan would not be able to get away from his office before evening, and if anyone else came she would merely say she was about to visit relatives for the holidays.
She called up the station and made her reservations on a train that left the city a little after six that night. Then she went down to the kitchen and gave the house servants a vacation for the holidays, all except the chauffeur and his wife, who lived over the garage and would care for the house.
After all her worry, it was very simple. The servants were delighted and did not ask her plans. She told them she would be visiting relatives. The house became a hive of industry for the next few hours, though there wasn’t much to be done toward closing up, as the chauffeur’s wife would look after all that. Marjorie went at her packing. It didn’t take long. She took some of her prettiest casual dresses—the Wetherills had never approved of wearing mourning—and two or three plain little house dresses in case she found her relatives in poor circumstances. She must remember not to remind them that she had been brought up to plenty.
She took her checkbook and plenty of money, carefully stowed as she had been taught to do when traveling. She left no address with anybody. She did not want anyone coming after her to try to hinder her in whatever she should decide to do.
At the last she almost turned back, her heart failing her at what might be before her, for she was gifted with a strong imagination and had in the night envisioned a number of situations that might arise that would make her greatly regret this step she was taking. But the servants were gone now, and it was too late to turn back. The taxi was at the door to take her to the station.
She waited long enough to telephone her lawyer that she would be out of the city for a few days, perhaps till after Christmas, and would let him know her address later. Then she locked the door and went down the walk to the taxi, winking back the tears, feeling as if she were bidding goodbye to her former lovely life and stepping off into the great unknown. What a fool she was, she told herself—she didn’t have to stay if she didn’t want to. She could come right back the day she got there if she chose.
And so at last she was on her way, quite worn out with the tumult of her decision and her preparations.
The next morning she arrived in the strange city and went to a hotel. After attempting a sketchy breakfast, she took a taxi and drove to the address that had been given in the letter.
She had meant to do a great deal of thinking before she went to sleep in her berth, but the day of excitement had wearied her more than she knew and she had dropped to sleep at once and had not wakened until the porter called her in the morning. So now, as she rode along in her taxi, she suddenly felt unprepared for the ordeal that was before her. She had intended to plan just how she would open the interview, always supposing she found anybody to have an interview with, but now it seemed too absurd to plan anything for so vague a scene as she was about to stage. She found herself shrinking inexpressibly from the whole thing. If she had it to decide all over again this morning, she would certainly have turned it down as an utterly preposterous proposition. Certain words and phrases of Evan’s came to her mind, a tiny reflection of his sneer when he had told her it might be embarrassing for her to hunt up her relatives.
Then her own honest, loyal nature came to the front and declared to her that whoever or whatever they were, they were hers, something God had put her into the world with as her own, and nobody, not even themselves, had a right to put them asunder. They were her birthright, and something she must not disown.
Now and then it came to her that her adoptive mother should have faced this problem with her long ago, when it wouldn’t have hurt her so much, but instantly her love defended the only mother she had ever known, and her heart owned that it would have been very hard for Mrs. Wetherill. On the whole it was just as well that she should decide this thing for herself and act as she chose. And it was generous, of course, of Mrs. Wetherill to give her a free hand to do what she chose for her birth family.
So her thoughts battled back and forth as she rode along through the strange city, looking out but not seeing the new sights, not taking in a thing but the breathless fact that she was on her way unannounced to meet the people to whom she had been born, and she was frightened.
It seemed a very long drive, out through a scrubby part of the city and then into a sordid street of little cheap houses all alike, brick houses with wooden porches in an endless row, block after block, with untidy vacant lots across the street, ending in unpleasant ash heaps. It was before the last house in the row that the taxi stopped, on the far outskirts of the city, with a desolate stretch of city dump beyond. Marjorie’s heart almost stopped beating, and she nearly told the driver to turn about and take her back to the hotel. Could it be that her people lived in a house like this? A little two-story, seven-by-nine affair, with not even a pavement in front, just a hard clay path worn by the feet of many children playing?
The driver handed her her check, opened the door, and she got out her purse.
“I think perhaps you had better wait for me a minute or two until I make sure this is the right place,” she said hesitantly as she eyed the house with displeasure.
“Yes ma’am, this is the number you give me,” said the man, “1465 Aster Street.”
“Yes, but they might have moved, you know,” said Marjorie hopefully.
So, on feet that were strangely unsteady, she got out and went slowly up the two wooden steps to the door that sadly needed paint. There was no bell, so she knocked timidly, and then again louder when she heard no sound of life within. She was just about to turn away, almost hoping they were gone and she would have no clue to search further, when she heard hurried steps on a bare floor and the door was opened sharply, almost impatiently. Then she found herself face to face with a replica of herself!
“Does Mrs. John Gay live here?”
She said the words because she had prepared them on her lips to say, but she was so startled at the apparition of herself in the flesh standing before her that she did not realize she had asked the question. She just stood there and stared and stared at this other girl who was so like and yet so unlike herself.
The other girl had the same cloud of golden hair, only it was flying in every direction, not smoothly waved in the way it ought to lie; the same brown eyes, only they were full of bitterness and trouble, and a kind of fright in the depths of them; the same delicate lips, only they were set in hard lines as if the grim realities of life had been too close to her. She was wearing a soiled and torn flimsy dress of flowered material that was most unbecoming and a cheap old coat with all the buttons off or hanging by threads. Her hands were small, but they were swollen and red with the cold, and she shivered as she stood grimly there staring at her most unwelcome guest.
“Well,” she said with a final little shiver, opening the door a trifle wider, “I suppose you must be my twin sister! Will you come in?” Her voice was most ungracious, and she stood aside in the tiny hall to let Marjorie pass in.
“Oh! Are you—? That is—I didn’t know!” said Marjorie in confusion. Then she turned suddenly to the taxi driver and nodded brightly.
“It’s all right,” she said. “They still live here!”
“But they probably won’t for long,” added the other girl grimly.
“Oh, are you going to move? Then I’m glad I came before you did, for I might have had trouble finding you.”
“Yes,” said the other girl, unsmiling, “you probably would have.” Then she motioned toward a single wooden chair in the middle of the room. “Won’t you sit down? We still have one chair left, though I believe Ted is going to take it to the pawn shop this afternoon. There isn’t any heat here. Will you take cold?” There was something contemptuous in the tone of this hostile sister. Marjorie gave her a quick, troubled glance.
“Are you really my sister?”
“I suppose I must be,” said the other girl listlessly, as if it didn’t in the least matter. “There’s your picture up there on the mantel. Maybe you’ll recognize that. If you had waited till afternoon that would probably have been gone, too.”
Marjorie turned startled eyes toward the stark little high wooden shelf that ran across the narrow chimney over a wall register and saw her own photographed face in its silver frame smiling at her and looking utterly out of place in that bleak little room. She turned back to look at the other girl wistfully.
“You know, I didn’t even know I had a sister until day before yesterday!”
The other looked at her with hard, unbelieving eyes.
“That’s odd, isn’t it? How did that come about?”
“No one told me,” she answered sadly.
“Oh, yes? Then how did you find out?”
“I found a letter—from Moth—that is, from my adopted mother after she died. She left a letter to tell me about my birth family.”
“You mean Mr. and Mrs. Wetherill are both dead?” The tone was incredulous.
“Yes. I am alone in the world now, except for you—my own family.”
The other girl’s face grew very hard and bitter now.
“Oh!” she said shortly. “I wondered why you came after all these years, when you haven’t paid the slightest attention to us. Not even a Christmas card now and then! You, with your grand home and your aristocratic parents and your fine education! What could you possibly want with us? But I see it now. They have died and left you penniless, I suppose, after all their grand pretensions, and you have come back on us to live. Well, we’ll take you in, of course. Mother wouldn’t have it otherwise, but I’ll say it’s something like the end of a perfect day to have you turn up just now.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Marjorie, distressed at once. “I ought to have telephoned to see if it was convenient, but I was so eager to find you. And you don’t at all realize anything about it. I’ve not come home to be a burden on you. I thought maybe I could spend Christmas with you. I know how you must feel. You are moving, and frightfully busy, but you’ll let me help, won’t you?”
“Moving!” sneered her sister. “Yes, we’d be moving right away today if we had any place to move to! And any money to move with! And anything to move! Christmas! I didn’t know there was such a thing anymore!” And suddenly she dropped down in a vacant chair, jerking her hands out from the ragged pockets of her old coat, put them up to her face, and burst into tears, sobbing until her slender body shook with the force of the sobs. Yet it was all done very quietly, as if there was some reason why she must not make a noise.
Marjorie went close and put her arms about her, her face down against the other’s wet cheek.
“Oh, my dear!” she said brokenly. “My dear!” And then her own tears were falling, and she held the weeping girl close. “But you are cold! So cold you are trembling! Can’t we go into another room where it is warm and let me tell you how you have misunderstood me? I won’t stay if you don’t want me, but I can’t bear to have you misunderstand me. Come!”
Then the girl lifted her face and spoke fiercely again.
“Come?” she said. “Where shall we come? Don’t you know there hasn’t been a teaspoonful of coal in this house for two days and that we’ve burned up all the chairs that aren’t sold to try and keep from freezing—except this one that has to be sold to get some medicine for Mother? Don’t you know Father hasn’t had any work for nine months, and Mother is sick upstairs in bed with all the blankets we own piled around her and a hot-water bag at her feet? I borrowed the hot water from a house in the next block, and it won’t stay hot long, I had to bring it so far. She’s getting pneumonia, I’m afraid, and I had to lose my job to stay home and take care of her. Don’t you know that Dad is sick himself, but he had to go out and beg the landlord to let us stay a few days more till Mother is better? And I guess Ted has lost his newspaper route, and I’ve had to take the children to the neighborhood day care to keep them warm and fed?
“If you stay here with us, you’ll have to pawn that fur coat to get enough to eat! You’d better go back to your fine friends and get a job or something. We haven’t anything in the house to eat but two slices of stale bread I saved to make toast for Mother. She’d likely give them to you if she knew, for she’s cried over you night after night lately. Dad has been eating at the mission for two weeks to save what we had for the rest of us. We pawned everything we had for a pittance to live on. We just finished Mother’s silver wedding spoons, and there isn’t anything left but your picture frame and Mother’s wedding ring, and I can’t bear to go and take that off of her. It would break her heart!”
Suddenly the sister’s head went down again and more silent sobs shook her. It was terrible to look upon. Marjorie felt it was the most awful sight she had ever seen. She stood there appalled as the bald truths were thrown at her like missiles. And that was her sister sitting there shaking with cold and misery! And she was standing here done up in costly furs, never having known what it was to be cold or hungry or frightened like that! How she despised herself!
Suddenly she stood back and unbuttoned her coat, slid out of it, and wrapped it warmly around her sister.
“There! There! You precious sister!” she said softly, laying her lips on the other girl’s cheek.
But her sister struggled up fiercely, her pride blazing in her eyes, her arms flinging off the coat. “No!” she said. “No, I won’t wear your coat even for a minute.”
But Marjorie caught it together about her again and held it there.
“Look here!” she said with authority. “Stop acting this way! I’m your sister, and I’ve come to help you! You can’t fling me off this way! And we haven’t time to fight! We’ve got to get busy. What’s the first thing to do? Make a fire! Where can I find a man to send for coal? Where is your telephone?”
“Telephone!” laughed the sister hysterically. “We haven’t had a telephone in years!”
Marjorie gave her a startled look. “Well,” she said suddenly, “we must get a fire going before that hot-water bag gets cold. Mother has got to be thought of first. Where can I find a man to make a fire?”
“A man!” said the other girl. “A man to make a fire!” And she suddenly gave that wild, hysterical laugh again. “I could make a fire if I had anything to make it with. I tell you, there isn’t even a newspaper left.”
“Well, where do we get coal? I’ll go out and get some,” said Marjorie meekly.
“You can’t,” said her sister sullenly. “They won’t trust us till the bill is paid, and we’ve nothing to pay it with.” Her eyes were smoldering like slow fires, and her face was filled with shame as she confessed this, but Marjorie’s eyes lit with joy.
“Oh, but I have!” she cried eagerly, and put her hand into her purse, pulling out a nice fat roll of bills and slipping them into her sister’s hand.
“There,” she said. “Go quick and pay the bill and get the coal!”
The other girl looked down at her hand, saw the large denomination of the bills she was holding, and looked up in wonder. Then her face changed, and an alert look came, pride stole slowly up, and the faint color that had come into her cheeks faded, leaving her ghastly white again.
“We couldn’t take it!” she said fiercely. “We couldn’t ever pay it back. There’s no use!” And she held it out to Marjorie.
“Nonsense!” said Marjorie. “You are my family, aren’t you? It’s my mother who is cold, isn’t it?”
“After all these years? You staying away and never sending us any word? No! You’re adopted and belong to that other woman, and it’s her money, not ours. We can’t take it!”
“Look here!” said Marjorie, her own eyes flashing now till they resembled her sister’s even more strongly than at first. “I didn’t ask to be adopted, did I? I didn’t have any choice in the matter, did I? I was adopted before I knew what was going on, and I didn’t know anything about you. You have no right to blame me that way! I couldn’t help what was done to me when I was a baby! If she had happened to adopt you, you probably would have been just what I’ve been. But I came to you just as soon as I found out, didn’t I? And I want you to know that I’m here, and I’m going to stay, and I’m going to help just as much as if I’d been here all the time. And as for the money, it’s mine, not hers. She left it to me, and she said in the letter I was to use it in any way I pleased. She even seemed to feel that she would like me to come and find you. But anyway I’m here, and I’m going to stay, and please don’t let’s waste any more time. It is awfully cold here!”
Then suddenly the other girl jumped up and flung Marjorie’s coat back to her.
“All right!” she said. “Put on your own coat. Maybe it’s all true. I don’t know. I’ve hated you and the Wetherills so long that I don’t know whether I can ever get over it or not, but I’ve got to try and save my mother’s life, even if it is with that other woman’s money!”