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Grace Livingston Hill
First published in 1934
Copyright © 2018 Classica Libris
Eastern United States
Grandmother lived down by the sea in summer, with a lovely stone seawall all around the garden and pillar roses climbing over it in pink riot.
The cottage was long and low and thatched, like Ann Hathaway’s, and there was ivy growing thick on the gable toward the sea, even climbing courageously up the great stone chimney and trailing down on the thatch.
Over against the back wall there were hollyhocks thickly massed, and all around the kitchen wall were morning glories, mostly blue and white. There were borders that blazed with portulaca and quieter ones of forget-me-nots and sweet alyssum and candytuft. There was a whole corner where the soft yellow of “hose-in-hose” cowslips shimmered in the spring sunshine and lit up the delicate tint of blue phlox, and a little later blazed with the brilliance of great oriental poppies; a long stretch of cheerful Shirley poppies shot here and there with bachelor buttons; farther on there was a mass of larkspur, pink and white and blue against the ivy on the back wall. Tall pale blue delphinium and Madonna lilies stood near the house, with the tea rose beds just across the path, and down beside the walk that led from the house to the arched gateway and the sea there was a great drift of blue flax as blue as the sea itself. It was a wonderful garden in a marvelous setting, and being there so unexpectedly just on the edge of the great rock-rimmed beach itself was all the more astonishing.
Grandmother was a brisk little old lady with a face that had survived many troubles and wise, bright eyes that would not be too sympathetic for one’s good, yet could twinkle with the youngest.
Grandmother stayed in her nest by the sea till the water began to beat high above her seawall and the garden had gone into shrouds for the winter. Then she made brief, bright visits to her sons and daughters and grandchildren and returned to get her house in order as soon as the first hint of spring came.
Grandmother still put up fruit in the old-fashioned way, pound for pound, and made jams and jellies enough for a hotel. She stocked her two deep cookie jars—one with molasses cookies, the other with big sugary caraway cookies—whenever a chick or child was coming to visit her. She had a little maid to help her, but she kept her skilled hand firmly over every bit of cookery that was concocted in her wide, white-tiled kitchen.
Grandmother had fine old engravings and oil paintings on her walls—pictures of other days, each one with a story to it—and many a child had sat at her feet and heard the stories over and over again, learning history, geography, political science—yes, and religion—at her feet.
Grandmother did not play bridge. She had never had time. And when anybody suggested her learning she would say, “Pooh! What would I want to waste my time like that for?”
She could knit, even the new intricate stitches. She had recently knit her oldest granddaughter a wonderful three-piece sports suit in delft blue and apricot colors for a gift toward her wedding trousseau, proving she was up-to-date to the last minute. Yet she still had a big print Bible on the little marble-topped stand that always stood by her own deeply cushioned resting chair. There was a rare old antimacassar, crocheted of finest thread in an intricate pattern, covering the marble of the little stand, and on that the Bible rested. Yes, and she read it, too, morning and night as she sat in her softly cushioned corner with her eyes far away on another world.
The youngest grandson called her “Gram” and considered her a chum. The youngest granddaughter called her “Babbie” and sat at her feet learning how to use a thimble. The oldest grandson called her “Grand” and said she was a good sport. The middle-sized granddaughter called her “Gwannie” and wheeled the very eyeteeth out of her. But every one of them adored her and delighted to have her come and visit, or better still to go down to the sea and spend the summer with her as they often did.
One day in the early summer a little pilgrim arrived at the wicket gate that swung in the rose-trimmed arch of the garden wall. A little battered, tempest-tossed soul, wayworn and weary and half-afraid. Shyly, hesitantly, half-defiantly she lifted the latch, opened the gate, and stepped within, gazing breathlessly around on the riot of joyous color, blinking her eyes and staring, unable to believe it was all true.
“Great God!” she said under her breath in a reverent, awestruck voice. “I never knew there could be anything as lovely as this!” Then after an instant, with conviction, “This can’t be the place, of course, but maybe they wouldn’t mind if I just stood and looked a minute, and perhaps they’ll be able to tell me where to find the right place; but I just must look at this while I’m here. I’ll never see anything like it again on earth, I’m sure. I’ve heard of heaven on earth! This must be it!”
She set down the cheap, antiquated little suitcase that held her worldly goods—and yet had room to sag with an emaciated air—and gazed around, her shoulders drooping from weariness, her fingers slowly unbending with relief from long carrying the burden.
She was a forlorn little creature, dressed in a shabby serge suit of a long-ago vintage, obviously sponged and pressed recently by an amateur hand. A little faded felt hat was pulled down over dark hair, which rioted out in places and caught the sunlight in little rings and waves and framed a face of delicate loveliness, whose fragile beauty was only the more startling perhaps because of the great dark rings under the sea-blue eyes. Even the sweetly curved lips drooped with weariness, and her whole slender figure sagged with exhaustion. She had walked all the way from the station, six miles away, and the heels of her shabby little shoes were worn crooked so that her feet were thrown out of balance. Besides, it was hot walking in the blazing sun, even on the hard, smooth beach, for her serge coat was thick, and the drabbled little white blouse she wore beneath it, besides being soiled with the journey, had acquired a great rip under one arm and would not do to appear in.
She put up the back of a small hand garbed in an old black kid glove much too large for it, pushed back the hair from her damp forehead, drew a deep breath, and stared off at the beauty spread before her. Over the waves of the flax bed, blue as the sea beyond and blowing like real waves in the breeze, over the blaze of the portulaca borders, up to the lovely old house, the green cool darkness of the ivy-covered walls, the riot of the flowers, her gaze lingering tenderly on the lilies in their blue setting, on the curves of a great pale rose in the rose bed, on the gray of the stone wall with its garland of roses, and then beyond to the blue sea itself with the fitting white sails here and there. From inside this safe, sweet enclosure, somehow the sea looked better, more restful, more wonderful to look at than when she had been walking all alone on that great empty stretch of shore with the sea like a monster that might approach at any moment and swallow her up.
Just a step farther inside the wicket was a rose-trellised seat. Would it be any harm to sit down for a minute and rest? It was cool in here, and she was so faint, so tired. She had not eaten yet that morning and it was nearing high noon.
With a stealthy step, she slid over to the seat and sat down, watching the house furtively. If anyone came out she would ask her way and go at once, of course. If it was a pleasant person she might find courage to ask for a drink of water. How good a drink of water would taste!
She dared to lean her head back against the arbor and close her eyes for a moment. How good the breeze felt on her hot cheeks. She pulled off her shabby little hat and smoothed her hair back. She must look very disheveled, and if she was to venture to the door to ask the way she must not look like a tramp.
She fitted her hat carefully on her head again, tucked in the soft tendrils of hair till they were demurely smooth, and then sat back looking off toward the sea. She could just get a glimpse of the blue with one sail at a place where the wall dipped down to meet the lower level of the front. Oh, it was lovely here. It was like resting in Fairyland. It was almost like coming into a deserted island. Was there nobody at home?
She turned her eyes cautiously toward the house. Yes, the front door stood open, disclosing a wide hall, or perhaps it was a living room, with a glimpse of low stairs in the dimness and the outline of a stone fireplace under the stair landing. A lovely house. Of course they would not go off and leave such a beautiful house alone with the front door wide open. There must be someone there, and eventually whoever it was would appear.
Yes, there was the unmistakable slam of an oven door in the region of what must be the kitchen, the clatter of a hot pan upon a table, and an instant later the delicious odor of something hot and crisp and sweet and spicy wafted on the air. Cookies, or it might be gingerbread! And homemade! How wonderful it smelled! How hungry she was!
What if she should dare to rush in and grab a cookie? How ravenous she felt! Probably if she should ask for something to eat they might give it to her, but she would rather starve than do it. She laughed quietly to herself, a trifle bitterly, over the thought of following out her hungry desire and rushing into that strange kitchen to grab something to eat. How terrible to have come to such a pass. She ought never to have started to come here with so little money. To think that she was down to her last five cents!
And when she arrived at her vague destination, suppose she found it just as impossible as the place she came from? How was she to get back?
Well, that would be to settle if the time came. At least she was so far on her way, but with only five cents left for emergencies. How long would five cents satisfy a hunger and a weariness like hers?
There! There was that sound of the oven door and that delicious wave of spicy fragrance again that brought on another wave of sickening hunger. Another pan of cookies put in to bake! It smelled as if there were raisins in them.
This would not do. She was growing maudlin. She must get out of here or she would go to pieces. This was too nice a place to spoil by collapsing. She would go to the door, inquire her way, and get on. If she was going to pass out, it would be more decent to do it out there on a lonely stretch of sand than here in this lovely home entrance.
So she rose with a deep breath to draw courage and took one more wistful glance around the garden where butterflies were circling in droves above the poppies and a green-gold hummingbird was spinning pinwheels over a great white lily. Ah, to get a glimpse of heaven and to have to leave it!
Grandmother Ainslee had come down to Rainbow Cottage rather late that year on account of having had to wait on the multitudinous festivities attending the marriage of the oldest granddaughter. She had been at the shore only a couple of weeks, hardly time enough to get everything going for the summer. She never had come down so late in all the summers that had gone before. She still was regretting having missed the cowslips and blue phlox.
But the cottage was in order from top to bottom, not a thing out of place. They had got in a fisherman’s daughter for three days to scrub and wash windows, and now everything was in shining order. For Grandmother was expecting company.
“She should have been here half an hour since,” she said to Janet, the maid, as she stepped to the sea door and looked out toward a dim ship on the horizon, as if that should be bearing the guest. “I told her to take a taxi,” she soliloquized, “and there hasn’t been a taxi by this morning. She must have missed her train. Her telegram said this morning’s train. I hate people missing trains. It shows they have no order. One should never miss a train.” She said it sternly as if the maid were arguing otherwise, as if against her will she wanted to believe that it was all right to miss trains.
“But mightn’t the train have been late?” argued Janet, as Grandmother had known she would.
“The train is very seldom late!” said Grandmother severely. “It is usually the traveler, not the train, that is late. Have you got that pitcher of lemonade in the refrigerator, Janet?”
“Yes, ma’am; it’s been in this half hour. It’s frosted nice by this time, all over the crystal of the big round pitcher. I like that pitcher M’s Ainslee. It looks like a big rock of ice.”
“That’s a very old pitcher,” said Grandmother with a dreamy look in her eyes, as Janet had known there would be.
“I had it when I was married. I’d feel it, Janet, if anything was to happen to that pitcher. I’ve always been so fond of it.”
“Yes, ma’am, you would! And so would I, M’s Ainslee! I jus’ love that pitcher. I got two glasses like it on the little silver tray like you said. Jus’ ta think you had ’em all these years an’ ain’t one o’ the twelve broke yet. My I’d hate ef anythin’ was ta happen to ’em when I was washin’ up.”
“You’re always very careful, Janet,” said the mistress softly.
“Thank you, M’s Ainslee, I try ta be. There! There’s a knock. Would that be Miss Sheila? Sheila, my that’s a pretty name! Want I should go ta the door, M’s Ainslee?”
Grandmother cast a quick apprehensive look at Janet, almost assenting, then shook her head.
“No, Janet, I’d better go. If it should be Sheila it wouldn’t seem very hospitable. But—I didn’t hear the taxi, did you, Janet?”
Grandmother was patting her soft curls into shape and taking off the big print apron that covered her pretty gray muslin.
“No, M’s Ainslee, but then you’n’I ben talkin’a lot. Mighta ben.”
Grandmother handed Janet the apron and darted away to the door. Janet sidled to the crack of the kitchen door and fixed a fine discerning eye where she could just get a glimpse of the front hall, and the cookies winked at each other and took occasion to burn with a fine sweet odor like incense.
When Grandmother saw the little girl-tramp at the door, she almost turned back and let Janet go in her stead. Janet was much more successful in dealing with tramps and salesmen of all kinds than kindhearted Grandmother Ainslee. But something in the tired sag of the girl’s slender body, something in the shy wistfulness of the great blue eyes that peered anxiously in at the screen door, drew her in spite of herself.
“Would you be so good as to give me a drink of water?”
The girl’s voice was sweet and clear. It was not the voice of a tramp-girl. It sounded almost cultured.
“Why, of course,” answered Grandmother briskly. Then raising her voice as she came on toward the door with the intention of looking up toward the road to see if a taxi was in sight, she called, “Janet, bring a pitcher of water and a glass, will you?”
But she brought her eyes to meet the blue ones of the girl first before she sought the road, and something haunting in those eyes caught and held her attention, something that stirred an old memory with a sweet, bitter stab of pain. Those eyes! Who did they remind her of?
“I’m so sorry to have to trouble you,” said the sweet voice again, “but I’ve walked a long way and the sun is very hot. I think I must have turned the wrong way at the village, and I just couldn’t go all that way back without a drink of water.”
“You poor child!” said Grandmother pityingly. “It’s no trouble at all. Here, Janet, I’ll take that, and you run back to your cookies. I smell them burning!”
The girl drank the water eagerly, draining the glass, and handed it back with a grateful smile. “Oh, that is so good!” she said with a quiver in her voice. “I felt almost as if I was going to faint if I didn’t have some water.”
“Won’t you sit down out there in the shade and rest awhile before you start back?” said Grandmother a shade hesitantly. It wasn’t exactly what she liked to plan for to have a little tramp-girl sitting under the trellis when Sheila arrived, but—well, one couldn’t be inhuman, and it was a hot morning in the sun.
“Oh, thank you,” said the girl with that wonderful lighting up of her tired young face that gave a stab of haunting memory to the old lady again. Who was it she looked like? “I’d love to stay a little and just look at those wonderful flowers and that sea. It seemed like heaven here. I never saw such a lovely garden. But I must be getting on. I may have a long way to go yet. I wonder—” And she hesitated and looked shyly at Grandmother. “I suppose it wouldn’t be at all likely that you would know the people living up the other way, would you? I suppose I must have come in the wrong direction, for it seems as if I had walked about ten miles since I left the station.”
“Why, yes, I know most of the people around this vicinity. I ought to. I’ve lived here around forty years,” said Grandmother briskly, running swiftly over the names of the winter settlers thereabouts. “What was the name of the people you wanted to find? Are they fishing people?”
The girl looked startled. “Why, no, I don’t think so,” she said thoughtfully. “I really don’t know, but I don’t think there are any men in the family now, at least not at home. It’s a Mrs. Ainslee I’m hunting. Do you happen to know anyone by that name?”
“Ainslee!” exclaimed Grandmother, looking at the girl with a puzzled frown. “Why, my name is Ainslee! But I don’t know anybody else in this region by that name. What are the initials?”
“Mrs. Harmon Ainslee,” said the girl with a wondering look at her.
“Well, that’s my name,” said Grandmother with a grim, almost startled look at the girl. “What was it you—who told you to come to me—? That is, why did you—” Grandmother stopped short in a kind of dismay, not knowing just which question she wanted to ask. This girl didn’t seem like either a beggar or a book agent. Perhaps she wanted to hire out for housework or something. Well, she must get this business over quickly before Sheila arrived.
“But—I don’t understand!” said the girl wearily, giving a wondering look around that included the garden and the sea and the hummingbird by the lily. “It just couldn’t be a place like this. There must be some mistake.”
The girl swayed and caught hold of the pillar by the door, and a sudden dazed look in her eyes pulled at Grandmother’s heartstrings.
“You’d better come in and sit down and rest a bit anyway,” said Grandmother, opening the door and putting out a hand gingerly to the shabby serge sleeve.
But the girl swayed again and leaned against the pillar.
“I have a letter here,” she said, fumbling in the worn little leather handbag she carried.
“A letter?” said Grandmother, half closing the door again. Then she was a beggar or an agent. They always carried letters, dirty, tattered letters that one didn’t want to touch.
“Yes,” said the girl, bringing out a crisply folded letter.
“I’m sorry,” said Grandmother almost curtly, “but I really haven’t time to read letters this morning. I’m expecting a guest any minute. If you could just tell me in a word what it is you want—”
The letter suddenly fell from the girl’s nerveless fingers and fluttered down on the brick pavement.
“Please excuse me,” she said with a frightened look in her eyes, “but I’ve just got to sit down for a minute, if you don’t mind.” And she suddenly collapsed to the step, her head swaying back to rest unsteadily against the pillar and her long lashes sweeping down across her pale cheeks.
Grandmother pushed wide the door in consternation and knelt down beside her, calling, “Janet, Janet, come here quick!”
But even as she knelt, she had that strange feeling tugging at her heart that she had seen those long lashes before somewhere lying on a round baby cheek.
Janet slatted the last pan of cookies down on the marble-topped kitchen table and came, gave one look, and dashed out beside her mistress. “We better get her inside outta this sun,” she said briefly. She gathered the frail girl into her strong arms, lifted her, and bore her in, laying her gently on the floor. “I’ll get the aromatics,” she said efficiently. “Don’t you go to worry, M’s Ainslee. She ain’t bad. She’s jes’ passed out fer the minit. She’ll be awright!”
She was back in a trice with the aromatic spirits of ammonia and a clean rag, wafting the pungent odor in front of the girl’s face. “Here, you hold that to her nose,” she commanded Grandmother, “and I’ll fix her a dose.” She handed over the restorative and went to get a glass of water and fix the drops.
“Now,” she said, coming back with the tumbler and spoon, “I’ll lift her head up, and you get some of that inside her lips.”
A moment more and consciousness returned. The girl opened her eyes slowly and looked up puzzled, gazed about on the strange ceiling, the walls, then gradually focused her eyes on the two women bending over her, and intelligence came back to her face.
“The letter!” she murmured, fumbling feebly for her bag.
“Your letter is all right, dearie,” said Grandmother solicitously. “Janet will pick it up for you. Just lie still a minute until you feel better.”
The long lashes fluttered on the pale cheeks again but opened wide in a minute or two, and the blue eyes looked steadily at the kindly old face bending over her. Then the girl lifted her head and struggled to rise.
“I’m all right now,” she said feebly, trying to smile. “I’m sorry to have made so much trouble. You’ve been very kind. I didn’t think I’d go to pieces like that. You see, I—”
“There, there, child, don’t trouble to explain now. Wait till you feel better. Here’s your letter. Now Janet, let’s get her up on the couch where she can lie more comfortably.”
Janet stopped and swung a strong young arm under the slight girlish form and got her to the couch without trouble. Grandmother came and stood over her, feeling her pulse with a practiced hand.
“You are so good and kind,” murmured the girl with another attempt at a smile. “I’m quite all right now. I really didn’t mean to arrive this way, I really didn’t. But it was just the smell of those heavenly cookies that did it, I think. It kind of overcame me.”
“You dear child!” said Grandmother quickly. “I’ll get you some. You’ve had a long walk and must have been hungry. You probably had your breakfast early.”
“I—didn’t eat any breakfast this morning. I guess that was it.”
“You didn’t eat any breakfast? That’s no way to do. You never should do that! Try to walk on an empty stomach! It’s never wise, especially in hot weather. Why didn’t you eat your breakfast?”
“Well, you see, the train got in early—at least, I thought it was going to—and I didn’t think it was worthwhile to go into the dining car. But then the train was late—”
“Oh! Late, was it?” said Grandmother with a quick look out the door still in search of the missing taxi. “Which way did you come from? South or west?”
“West,” said the girl, drawing a long, trembling breath.
“Oh!” said Grandmother, going over to the door quickly and giving another long look up toward the road from the village. “That explains it then. You see, I’m expecting my granddaughter from the West this morning, and I couldn’t understand why she didn’t arrive. But” —with a quick look at the girl—“if you walked all that distance, she certainly ought to have got here before you in a taxi. She was to take a taxi. Still, perhaps she came on another section. They sometimes have two sections on those through trains, I know.”
The girl on the couch lay very still for a minute with her eyes closed. Then she slowly opened her eyes and looked at the old lady and spoke, hesitantly: “I guess, perhaps she’s here,” she said in a grave, reserved voice. “I couldn’t believe it would be such a wonderful place as this, but if you say you are Mrs. Harmon Ainslee, then it must be true. I’m Sheila Ainslee!”
Grandmother whirled around and gave one long, penetrating look at the threadbare little waif who had drifted to her door. Then she swung around to the kitchen door and called, “Janet, bring the pitcher of lemonade and some hot cookies right away.”
She said it in the tone in which one might have said, “Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him…and shoes on his feet!”
Then she whirled around to the girl again. “So that’s whose eyes you’ve got—my little Andy’s eyes, and his long bright lashes. I might have known, poor fool I!”
And she was down on her knees beside the couch working with the buttons of the shabby blue coat, pulling off the dejected felt hat, and smoothing back the waves of hair from the white forehead.
But Sheila put up her hands to protect the coat from being unbuttoned and reached ashamedly for her hat. “No, please,” she said feebly. “I’m not fit to be seen until I’ve cleaned up a little. I’ve had five days and nights in the common car, and I’m a sight! My blouse is fairly black! And please, I can’t get fixed up nor anything until I’ve said what I’ve come to say.”
Janet came in just then, and Grandmother rose regally and took the tray from the reluctant Janet, who did not want her cookies and carefully prepared drink wasted on a little tramp-girl.
But Grandmother thoroughly understood Janet. She placed the tray on a small table beside Sheila, poured her a glass of the tinkling frosty drink, pressed it to the girl’s lips till she drank eagerly, set a plate of cookies in her lap, and then in a voice that conveyed both rebuke and command to the maid, she ordered, “Janet, go up and see that everything is all right in Miss Sheila’s room, and draw the water for a bath. She has had a hard journey and will want to rest. You might open the bed and draw the shades down, for the sun will be shining on that side of the house by now perhaps.”
Janet stared and turned hastily to do her mistress’s bidding, half sulky that things had turned out this way.
But when Grandmother turned back to her guest she found her sitting up and putting on her hat again, a grave reserve in her manner.
“Grandmother, you are very kind,” said Sheila, “and this is a wonderful place, far lovelier than I had ever dreamed any place could be, and not at all the kind of place I thought I was coming to. But I can’t take off my things, nor accept any of your hospitality, until I find out how you feel about one thing.”
“Why, child!” said Grandmother aghast, sitting down suddenly in the nearest chair.
“It’s about my mother!” said the girl. “I’ve grown up feeling that you hated my mother, and if that is so, I couldn’t stay here even for a short visit.”
“I never hated any living soul!” defended Grandmother pitifully. “I certainly do not hate her. How could you get such an idea?”
“You wrote my father long ago. We found the letter in an old coat pocket after he went away. You said something about his having married beneath him.”
The blue eyes rested accusingly upon the old lady, and Grandmother sat up bravely under the challenge.
“My son wrote me that he was marrying a girl who sang in a cabaret,” she answered with dignity. “That was all I knew about her. In my experience, girls who sing in cabarets are not usually well brought up, nor rightly educated nor cultured. I felt that my son would only add to the sorrow that he had brought to us all, by marrying,” Grandmother hesitated for a word, “out of his class,” she finished lamely.
A white flame blazed into the eyes of the girl, and her lips grew hard and thin with anger as she answered: “That’s it. Out of his class! You thought she was out of his class when you knew nothing about it at all. You knew only one thing about her, and you judged her out of his class. Well, she was. She was in a class far above him. Don’t misunderstand me. I loved my father, but my mother was as far above him in every way as the stars are above the earth. You did not know that my mother’s mother was dying without the proper food and medicine when my mother began to sing in the cabaret and that she had to sing there even the day her mother died because she had not enough money to bury her. And that she had to go on singing there afterward because there was nothing else in the town that she could get to do while she paid the honest debts she had had to make while her mother was dying!”
“No! I did not know that!” said Grandmother meekly, her eyes filled with a dawning trouble. “I only knew that my son wrote me he was going to be married and wanted money to finance what seemed to me a disaster to his life, which had already gone far toward ruin.”
Sheila’s cheeks were burning now with excitement, and a new strength had come to her.
“You did not know that my mother belonged to an old and honored family in Ireland once. There is a great castle over there where my mother’s mother used to live before their money was used to further what they felt to be a righteous cause.”
“No,” said Grandmother sadly, “but it was not of things like that I was worrying. Money and castles and an honored name. I would have been satisfied if he had married a poor, obscure girl who was decent. But it did not seem to me that a girl—”
“No,” said Sheila, “you did not ask questions. You did not know that my mother came over to this country with her father and mother when she was a young girl because her father thought that he had a chance to retrieve their fortune and save the castle to their name and that he was killed in a train accident before he ever succeeded in making much. My mother brought her mother out to the West to save her life because the doctor said it was her only hope. And they took every cent they had and spent it to save my grandmother’s life, and still she died. Then my mother was left alone and had to keep on at the only job there was. She hadn’t anybody, not anybody, to help her, and she hadn’t a cent. So she sang in that cabaret. And you hated her for it!”
“No, child, no! I am not as bad as that. I did not hate her! I didn’t understand!”
“No, you didn’t understand! Well, I came here to tell you. When your invitation came for me to visit you, I wouldn’t. I even hated you. I knew how much you might have helped us in our trouble and you didn’t, and I felt I never wanted to come near you, not even if it could save me from starving to death. But afterward I got to thinking. You wrote a very nice letter to me. If it hadn’t been that you never suggested that you would like to know my mother, or to have her visit you, perhaps I would have thought it was loving, for I hadn’t found that letter in Father’s pocket then that showed how you had been against her from the first. That was before Mother died and—”
Grandmother lifted a shocked face.
“Your mother is dead?”
“Yes,” said Sheila fiercely and suddenly bowed her head with a great overwhelming sob that shook her slender shoulders. “Yes, she is dead. She died six weeks ago. Worn out! It was after that I found the letter in an old coat pocket of Father’s when I was packing up to move to a cheaper place.”
“My dear!” said Grandmother heartbrokenly. The tears were coursing down her wrinkled cheeks now. “Oh, my dear! I am so sorry! I did not even know she was sick! Your father has not written me in a long time. He was always remiss in so many things. My poor bad boy! My Andrew! But I would have thought he would have written me when his wife died!”
“My father does not know,” said Sheila in a colorless voice, a full apathetic look coming into her eyes. “He has not been home in three years. That was what killed her. She loved him through everything.”
“He has not been home?” The mother’s voice was filled with horror. “Not been in his home for three years! Why, where was he?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Why, what can you mean?”
“He often went off,” said Sheila, drawing a weary breath. “He used to get tired of having us always needing things. He used to get tired of Mother being sick and not having good meals, but how could Mother get good meals when there wasn’t money to buy anything to cook? And he used to go off. The first time he went I was almost four years old. I remember he said he wasn’t coming back till he had enough money to live comfortably on.”
Grandmother put her face down and wept silently into her hands. Sheila went on with her story in a sad little hopeless voice as if she had gone over it all so many times that the pain was all drained out of it. As if it were merely a ceremony she was performing.
“It was then that Mother had to get a job.” She said it desolately. “And there wasn’t anything else she could get but to go back to the cabaret where she had been singing when Father found her and married her.”
Grandmother made a sad little moan.
“She had to take me with her,” went on the girl. “I remember there was an old couch in the dressing room where my mother changed into the dress she sang in, and I used to curl up with an old coat over me and go to sleep till she was ready to go home.”
Grandmother lifted her tear-wet face and spoke earnestly: “But surely your mother could have written me. She knew I had plenty.”
“My mother was a proud woman,” said the girl with a little haughty lifting of her chin. “She was as proud as you are. She knew that my father had asked help of you at first, had told you that he was turning over a new leaf, and that marrying my mother was a part of it, and that if you would help him get a start you would never regret it. And all you did was to urge him to go away and never see her again.”
“Oh,” groaned Grandmother, “I thought I was doing the right thing. I asked advice of several friends, and they all said that was what I ought to do. I did not trust my Andrew. He had made promises before and not kept them.”
“Well, maybe they were right,” said the girl in a toneless voice. “Anyway, you can see why my mother did not write to you. And somehow we made out, and my mother managed to keep me in decent clothes and send me to school till my father came back again. And the first time he came back he brought a lot of money with him.”
“Oh!” said Grandmother hopefully.
“But it didn’t seem to bring happiness with it. My mother gave up her work and stayed at home, and we had a nicer place to live in—a nice little cottage with three rooms downstairs and two bedrooms. But Mother cried a great deal. And once in the night I woke up and heard them talking. Mother wanted to go away to another place and get away from all the old surroundings, but it seemed that Father was tied up in some way. He told her he didn’t dare. It had something to do with money, and he seemed to have to go around with a lot of men that my mother did not like. Men she thought were bad. They gambled a great deal, and they drank. I am sure my father gambled, for our money sometimes would all be gone in a night, and Mother would suffer so and cry so. And I know he drank. He would often come home drunk. I used to wonder if he wasn’t ashamed to come sober, because I know he loved Mother and hated to hurt her.”
Grandmother sat with bowed head as if wave after wave of sorrow were passing over her. She seemed to have aged in that few minutes. Suddenly Sheila looked up, and her eyes, which had been hard and hopeless, softened, and the tears began to come down her face, too.
“I’m not doing this to hurt you,” she said sorrowfully. “I just thought I had to come and tell you about my mother. I didn’t come here to sponge on you nor to touch your sympathy and get you to help me. I came because I couldn’t stand it not to have you know what a wonderful mother I had. Why, she has been father and mother both to me, and she has gone to work night after night when she was almost too weak to stand up. No, please don’t stop me yet. I must tell you all.”
Grandmother had lifted her hands in protest and opened her lips to say something, but she dropped her hands again in her lap submissively and sat still, with the tears flowing and a look of utter humiliation on her sweet old face.
“My father went away several times,” went on Sheila in an obvious struggle to get through with the story, “and every time he came back we had prosperity for a little while, but it never lasted long, and my mother always had to go back to her singing. They liked her at that place and were kind to her. I always thought the proprietor was mixed up with Father in some sort of deal. But as I grew older, Mother wouldn’t let me go near the place, and she made me promise I would never go there even if she were taken away. She wanted me never to let people know I could sing.”
Grandmother’s face kindled at that.
“But this last time when Father went away,” went on Sheila, “Mother didn’t find it so easy to get her place back again. There was a young girl who sang jazz and danced and was more familiar with men. Mother wasn’t like that. She was always very distant to everybody, just did her part gorgeously and went off to her dressing room. Some of the new people didn’t like that, and if it hadn’t been for the old proprietor, she would have been dropped at once, but he insisted that Mother had to be kept on, too. But there was a new manager; the old man had had a stroke and couldn’t do much, and the new manager was hateful to Mother. Made her sing twice as much, encores and things, and cut down her pay. I was working evenings, too, at the Junction Hotel, waiting on tables and washing dishes. Mother hated it for me, and I was still in school, you know, so it kept me pretty busy, but it was the only way to make ends meet.”
“Oh!” groaned Grandmother. “To think that I—”
“You don’t need to feel that way,” said Sheila pityingly. “I knew how to take care of myself. My mother taught me to keep away from everybody as much as possible and not let anyone get familiar with me. No, don’t stop me yet, Grandmother, I must tell the rest. I’m almost done.”
The old lady wiped away the tears and set herself to listen again.
“That last winter was a hard one. I knew Mother was sick, but I didn’t know how sick till afterward.” Sheila took a deep breath and held her lip between her teeth to keep it from quivering. “I tried several times to keep her from going to sing, but she would do it. She said if she stayed away just once the new manager would have something to complain of and she would lose the job entirely. But that last night it was raining and she was very weak. She had been lying on the bed all day, too sick to eat, but she would go. I begged her to let me take her place. She knew I could do it. I could sing all her songs. But she rose right up as if she were frightened and began to dress.”
Sheila paused to close her eyes and take a deep breath, as if the memory hurt her too much for words. Then she hurried on.
“I got off from my work that night because I was worried about her. But I could not stop her. Then I begged her to let me go with her, but she grew so excited I was frightened. I think she dreaded that place for me worse than anything she knew. So when she started out in the rain, I followed her. I dared not let her go alone. The wind was blowing a terrific gale, and she was like a willow wand in its power. How she ever got to the hall I do not know. It was all I could do sometimes to keep my footing. And once she reeled and almost fell but caught hold of a tree and went on when the blast was over.”
Grandmother had lifted her face now, and her eyes were bright with excitement as she listened breathlessly to a tale that was cutting her soul with anguish. But Sheila had forgotten her listener perhaps. Her face was tense; her eyes were far away as she went rapidly on.
“After she had reached the door and gone in, I hovered about in the shadow by the side entrance until I got a chance to steal in when no one was looking. I knew the way around, of course, for I had been with her so much when I was little. I slipped into the end of the hall behind her dressing room where I knew people seldom came. There was a closet nearby where I could hide if it became necessary, and I watched and listened. When she came out of her dressing room, I watched her from the dark and saw her totter. I was afraid she would fall before she got on the platform, and I stole out to keep near if she needed me. But I was amazed when I heard her voice. It was rich and clearer than it had been for years. It seemed as if she had put all she was and all she ever had been into that song. It was an old Irish ballad, and it seemed to me I could see the castle where she was born and the shamrock gleaming like emerald. She had told me about Ireland, and it always seems to me that I have been there, it is so real to me.”
Sheila’s eyes were large and filled with tears, but she went on with her tale without stopping to wipe the tears away.
“The audience went wild. They cheered and cheered and called her back again and again. And each time, instead of growing weak, her voice seemed stronger and clearer than the last. I couldn’t believe my ears, and she so sick all day! But then after she had sung over almost her whole repertoire, I heard her speak, sweet and clear, and there was something in her voice that I had never heard before, a kind of command and confidence and a great tenderness. The clapping stopped, and the room was so still it seemed as if I could hear people breathe, almost hear them think. She said, ‘I can give you only one more tonight. I am very tired. Listen! It is an old song I love. I leave it with you!’ And then she began to sing—it was slow and sweet and tender but so clear that every word reached out into the far shadows of the room:
‘Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to thy bosom fly,’
“I had never heard her sing like that. Every word seemed as if it were a cry from her soul to God.
‘Hide me, O my savior hide,
Till the storm of life is past,’
“It broke my heart to listen, but I was drawn closer and closer to the door just behind the stage till I could see her standing there in her little old white dress, with her face so white and sweet and her eyes looking up as if she saw beyond the gaudy garlands of the place.”
Sheila’s voice broke, and she buried her face in her hands for an instant then lifted her head once more and hurried on.
“As I watched her, I seemed to know that she was not singing anymore, she was praying, really praying to God. I think the people in the room all felt it, too, for some of them were crying. Even the rough men stopped drinking and the women stopped laughing and listened and had tears in their eyes. But she wasn’t thinking of them anymore, she was singing right on:
‘All my trust on Thee is stayed,’
“She sang all through the verses, and no one spoke nor moved:
‘Thou, O Christ, art all I want;
More than all in Thee I find:’
“Her voice grew with each line into a great crescendo:
‘Plenteous grace with Thee is found,
Grace to cover all my sin,’
“Her accompanist at first had just struck chords here and there. He was used to following her, just wandering into her key and improvising, but when she came to the last verse, he broke into great triumphant strains, as if he sensed for an instant how real it all was, and then he suddenly died away and left her to sing those last four lines alone:
‘Thou of life the Fountain are,
Freely let me take of Thee
Spring Thou up within my heart,
Rise to all eternity.’
“She sang it so triumphantly, so pleadingly. I saw the pianist suddenly look up as if he half expected to see God standing somewhere above. There wasn’t a waver of her full, wonderful tone to the last word sustained to the end, and then, suddenly, as the sound died away to a whisper, I heard a great sob come from somewhere down by a table back by the door, and Mother dropped softly down in a little white heap:
“Even before I started to run out there to her, I knew she was gone, and it seemed to me as if God had somehow let her sort of glorify the awful work she had to do, the work she hated so and only did for my sake.”
Sheila was still for an instant, looking out the open door down toward the lilies where the hummingbird was glancing here and there with green and gold flashes; then she raised her great blue-drenched eyes and said quietly, “I think she is in someplace like that over there, now, for that’s as near to heaven as I could ever dream, and I’m sure if there’s a heaven she is in it.”
She said the last words defiantly and looked at her grandmother sitting there so silently, weeping great tears down upon her withered clasped hands.
Then the girl suddenly closed her eyes and lay back wearily as if the effort of talking had been too much for her, and for an instant the old lady’s tears dropping softly on her hands was all that could be heard in the room.