In the midst of these cogitations, apprehensions, and reflections, it came into my thoughts one day, as I was working at my shop down-town with my men, that all this might be a chimera of my own, and that the foot might be the print of my own boot as I had left it in the soil some days before when I was looking at my melons. This cheered me up a little, too. I considered that I could by no means tell for certain where I had trod and where I had not, and that if at last this was the print of my own boot, I had played the part of those fools who strive to make stories of spectres, and then are themselves frightened at them more than anybody else.
So I returned home that day in very good spirits. I carried to my mother a copy of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, which had in it some pictures that I knew would please her, and I talked with her in as light- hearted a way as I could, to try to make her think that I had forgotten my alarm. And afterward we played two or three games of Egyptian solitaire at the table, and I went to bed unusually early. But, at the first break of day, when I fancied or hoped that she was still asleep, I rose quickly, and half-dressing myself, crept out to the melon-patch to examine again the imprint of the foot and to make sure that it was mine.
Alas! it was no more mine than it was Queen Victoria's. If it had only been cloven, I could easily have persuaded myself whose it was, so much grief and trouble had it cost me. When I came to measure the mark with my own boot, I found, just as I had seen before, that mine was not nearly so large as this mark was. Also, this was, as I have said, the mark of a heavy brogan—such as I never wore—and there was the mark of a strange patch near the toe, such as I had never seen, nor, indeed, have seen since, from that hour to this hour. All these things renewed my terrors. I went home like a whipped dog, wholly certain now that some one had found the secret of our home: we might be surprised in it before I was aware; and what course to take for my security I knew not.
As we breakfasted, I opened my whole heart to my mother. If she said so, I would carry all our little property, piece by piece, back to old Thunberg, the junk- dealer, and with her parrot and my umbrella we would go out to Kansas, as we used to propose. We would give up the game. Or, if she thought best, we would stand on the defensive. I would put bottle-glass on the upper edges of the fences all the way round.
There were four or five odd revolvers at The Ship, and I would buy them all, with powder and buck-shot enough for a long siege. I would teach her how to load, and while she loaded I would fire, till they had quite enough of attacking us in our home. Now it has all gone by, I should be ashamed to set down in writing the frightful contrivances I hatched for destroying these "creatures," as I called them, or, at least, frightening them, so as to prevent their coming thither any more.
"Robin, my boy," said my mother to me, when I gave her a chance at last, "if they came in here to-night— whoever 'they' may be—very little is the harm that they could do us. But if Mr. Kennedy and twenty of his police should come in here over the bodies of—five times five are twenty-five, twenty-five times eleven are—two hundred and seventy-five people whom you will have killed by that time, if I load as fast as thee tells me I can, why, Robin, my boy, it will go hard for thee and me when the day of the assizes comes. They will put handcuffs on thy poor old mother and on thee, and if they do not send thee to Jack Ketch, they will send thee to Bloomingdale."
I could not but see that there was sense in what she said. Anyway, it cooled me down for the time, and I kissed her and went to my work less eager, and, indeed, less anxious, than I had been the night before. As I went down-town in the car, I had a chance to ask myself what right I had to take away the lives of these poor savages of the neighborhood merely because they entered on my possessions. Was it their fault that they had not been apprenticed to carpenters? Could they help themselves in the arrangements which had left them savages? Had any one ever given them a chance to fence in an up-town lot? Was it, in a word, I said to myself— was it my merit or my good luck which made me as good as a landed proprietor, while the Fordyce heirs had their education? Such thoughts, before I came to my shop, had quite tamed me down, and when I arrived there I was quite off my design, and I concluded that I had taken a wrong measure in my resolution to attack the savages, as I had begun to call men who might be merely harmless loafers.
It was clearly not my business to meddle with them unless they first attacked me. This it was my business to prevent; if I were discovered and attacked, then I knew my duty.
With these thoughts I went into my shop that day, and with such thoughts as these, and with my mother's good sense in keeping me employed in pleasanter things than hunting for traces of savages, I got into a healthier way of thinking.
The crop of melons came in well, and many a good feast we had from them. Once and again I was able to carry a nice fresh melon to an old lady my mother was fond of, who now lay sick with a tertian ague.
Then we had the best sweet corn for dinner every day that any man had in New York. For at Delmonico's itself, the corn the grandees had had been picked the night before, and had started at two o'clock in the morning on its long journey to town. But my mother picked my corn just at the minute when she knew I was leaving my shop. She husked it and put it in the pot, and by the time I had come home, had slipped up the board in the fence that served me for a door, and had washed my face and hands in my own room, she would have dished her dinner, would have put her fresh corn upon the table, covered with a pretty napkin; and so, as I say, I had a feast which no nabob in New York had. No indeed, nor any king that I know of, unless it were the King of the Sandwich Islands, and I doubt if he were as well served as I.
So I became more calm and less careworn, though I will not say but sometimes I did look carefully to see if I could find the traces of a man's foot; but I never saw another.
Unless we went out somewhere during the evening, we went to bed early. We rose early as well, for I never lost the habits of my apprenticeship. And so we were both sound asleep in bed one night when a strange thing happened, and a sudden fright came to us, of which I must tell quite at length, for it made, indeed, a very sudden change in the current of our lives.
I was sound asleep, as I said, and so, I found, was my mother also. But I must have been partly waked by some sudden noise in the street, for I knew I was sitting up in my bed in the darkness when I heard a woman scream,—a terrible cry,—and while I was yet startled, I heard her scream again, as if she were in deadly fear. My window was shaded by a heavy green curtain, but in an instant I had pulled it up, and by the light of the moon I seized my trousers and put them on.
I was well awake by this time, and when I flung open the door of my house, so as to run into my garden, I could hear many wild voices, some in English, some in German, some in Irish, and some with terrible cries, which I will not pretend I could understand.
There was no cry of a woman now, but only the howling of angry or drunken men, when they are in a rage with some one or with each other. What startled me was that, whereas the woman's cry came from the street south of me, which I have called Fernando Street, the whole crowd of men, as they howled and swore, were passing along that street rapidly, and then stopped for an instant, as if they were coming up what I called Church Alley. There must have been seven or eight of them.
Now, it was by Church Alley that my mother and I always came into our house, and so into our garden. In the eight years, or nearly so, that I had lived there, I had by degrees accumulated more and more rubbish near the furthest end of the alley as a screen, so to speak, that when my mother or I came in or out, no one in the street might notice us. I had even made a little wing-fence out from my own, to which my hand-cart was chained. Next this I had piled broken brickbats and paving-stones, and other heavy things, that would not be stolen. There was the stump and the root of an old pear-tree there, too heavy to steal, and too crooked and hard to clean or saw. There was a bit of curbstone from the street, and other such trash, which quite masked the fence and the hand- cart.
On the other side—that is, the church side, or the side furthest from the street—was the sliding-board in the fence, where my mother and I came in. So soon as it was slid back, no man could see that the fence was not solid.
At this moment in the night, however, when I found that this riotous, drunken crew were pausing at the entrance of Church Alley, as doubting if they would not come down, I ran back through the passage, knocking loudly for my mother as I passed, and coming to my coal-bin, put my eye at the little hole through which I always reconnoitred before I slid the door. I could see nothing, nor at night ought I to have expected to do so.
But I could hear, and I heard what I did not expect. I could hear the heavy panting of one who had been running, and as I listened I heard a gentle, low voice sob out, "Ach, ach, mein Gott! Ach, mein Gott!" or words that I thought were these, and I was conscious, when I tried to move the door, that some one was resting close upon it.
All the same, I put my shoulder stoutly to the cross- bar, to which the boards of the door were nailed; I slid it quickly in its grooves, and as it slid, a woman fell into the passage.
She was wholly surprised by the motion, so that she could not but fall. I seized her and dragged her in, saying, "Hush, hush, hush!" as I did so. But not so quick was I but that she screamed once more as I drew to the sliding-door and thrust in the heavy bolt which held it.
In an instant my mother was in the passage with a light in her hand. In another instant I had seized the light and put it out. But that instant was enough for her and me to see that here was a lovely girl, with no hat or bonnet on, with her hair floating wildly, both her arms bleeding, and her clothes all stained with blood. She could see my mother's face of amazement, and she could see my finger on my mouth, as with the other I dashed out the candle. We all thought quickly, and we all knew that we must keep still.
But that unfortunate scream of hers was enough. Though no one of us all uttered another sound, this was like a "view-halloo," to bring all those dogs down upon us. The passage was dark, and, to my delight, I heard some of them breaking their shins over the curbstone and old pear-tree of my defences. But they were not such hounds as were easily thrown off the scent, and there were enough to persevere while the leaders picked themselves up again.
Then how they swore and cursed and asked questions! And we three stood as still as so many frightened rabbits. In an instant more one of them, who spoke in English, said he would be hanged if he thought she had gone into the church, that he believed she had got through the fence; and then, with his fist, or something harder, he began trying the boards on our side, and others of them we could hear striking those on the other side of the alley-way.
When it came to this, I whispered to my mother that she must never fear, only keep perfectly still. She dragged the frightened girl into our kitchen, which was our sitting-room, and they both fell, I know not how, into the great easy-chair.
For my part, I seized the light ladder, which always hung ready at the door, and ran with it at my full speed to the corner of Fernando Street and the alley. I planted the ladder, and was on the top of the fence in an instant
Then I sprang my watchman's rattle, which had hung by the ladder, and I whirled it round well. It wholly silenced the sound of the swearing fellows up the passage, and their pounding. When I found they were still, I cried out:—
"This way, 24! this way, 47! I have them all penned up here! Signal the office, 42, and bid them send us a sergeant. This way, fellows—up Church Alley!"
With this I was down my ladder again. But my gang of savages needed no more. I could hear them rushing out of the alley as fast as they might, not one of them waiting for 24 or 47. This was lucky for me, for as it happened I was ten minutes older before I heard two patrolmen on the outside, wondering what frightened old cove had been at the pains to spring a rattle.
The moonlight shone in at the western window of the kitchen, so that as I came in I could just make out the figure of my mother and of the girl, lying, rather than sitting, in her lap and her arms. I was not afraid to speak now, and I told my mother we were quite safe again, and she told the poor girl so. I struck a match and lighted the lamp as soon as I could. The poor, frightened creature started as I did so, and then fell on her knees at my mother's feet, took both her hands in her own, and seemed like one who begs for mercy, or, indeed, for life.
My poor, dear mother was all amazed, and her eyes were running with tears at the sight of the poor thing's terror. She kissed her again and again; she stroked her beautiful golden hair with her soft hands; she said in every word that she could think of that she was quite safe now, and must not think of being frightened any more.
But it was clear in a moment that the girl could not understand any language that we could speak. My mother tried her with a few words of German, and she smiled then; but she shook her head prettily, as if to say that she thanked her, but could not speak to her in that way either. Then she spoke eagerly in some language that we could not understand. But had it been the language of Hottentots, we should have known that she was begging my mother not to forsake her, so full of entreaty was every word and every gesture.
My dear, sweet mother lifted her at last into the easy-chair and made her lie there while she dipped some hot water from her boiler and filled a large basin in her sink. Then she led the pretty creature to it, and washed from her arms, hands, and face the blood that had hardened upon them, and looked carefully to find what her wounds were. None of them were deep, though there were ugly scratches on her beautiful arms; they were cut by glass, as I guessed then, and as we learned from her afterward. My mother was wholly prepared for all such surgery as was needed here; she put on two bandages where she thought they were needed, she plastered up the other scratches with court-plaster, and then, as if the girl understood her, she said to her, "And now, my dear child, you must come to bed; there is no danger for you more."
The poor girl had grown somewhat reassured in the comfortable little kitchen, but her terror seemed to come back at any sign of removal; she started to her feet, almost as if she were a wild creature. But I would defy any one to be afraid of my dear mother, or indeed to refuse to do what she bade, when she smiled so in her inviting way and put out her hand; and so the girl went with her, bowing to me, or dropping a sort of courtesy in her foreign fashion, as she went out of the door, and I was left to see what damage had been done to my castle by the savages, as I called them.
I had sprung the rattle none too soon; for one of these rascals, as it proved—I suppose it was the same who swore that she had not gone into the church—with some tool or other he had in his hand, had split out a bit of the fence and had pried out a part of a plank. I had done my work too well for any large piece to give way. But the moment I looked into my coal-bin I saw that something was amiss. I did not like very well to go to the outside, but I must risk something; so I took out a dark lantern which I always kept ready. Sure enough, as I say, the fellow had struck so hard and so well that he had split out a piece of board, and a little coal even had fallen upon the passage-way. I was not much displeased at this, for if he thought no nearer the truth than that he had broken into a coal-bin of the church, why, he was far enough from his mark for me. After finding this, however, I was anxious enough, lest any of them should return, not to go to bed again that night; but all was still as death, and, to tell the truth, I fell asleep in my chair. I doubt whether my mother slept, or her frightened charge.
I was at work in the passage early the next morning with some weather-stained boards I had, and before nine o'clock I had doubled all that piece of fence, from my wing where my hand-cart was to the church, and I had spiked the new boards on, which looked like old boards, as I said, with tenpenny nails; so that he would be a stout burglar who would cut through them unless he had tools for his purpose and daylight to work by. As I was gathering up my tools to go in, a coarse, brutal-looking Irishman came walking up the alley and looked round. My work was so well done, and I had been so careful to leave no chips, that even then he could not have guessed that I had been building the fence anew, though I fancied he looked at it. He seemed to want to excuse himself for being there at all, and asked me, with an oath and in a broad Irish brogue, if there were no other passage through. I had the presence of mind to say in German, "Wollen sie sprechen Deutsch?" and so made as if I could not understand him; and then, kneeling on the cellar-door of the church, pretended to put a key into the lock, as if I were making sure that I had made it firm.
And with that, he turned round with another oath, as if he had come out of his way, and went out of the alley, closely followed by me. I watched him as long as I dared, but as he showed no sign of going back to the alley, I at last walked round a square with my tools, and so came back to my mother and the pretty stranger.
My mother had been trying to get at her story. She made her understand a few words of German, but they talked by signs and smiles and tears and kisses much more than by words; and by this time they understood each other so well that my mother had persuaded her not to go away that day.
Nor did she go out for many days after; I will go before my story far enough to say that. She had, indeed, been horribly frightened that night, and she was as loath to go out again into the streets of New York as I should be to plunge from a safe shore into some terrible, howling ocean; or, indeed, as one who found himself safe at home would be to trust himself to the tender mercies of a tribe of cannibals.
Two such loving women as they were were not long in building up a language, especially as my mother had learned from my father and his friends, in her early life, some of the common words of German—what she called a bread-and-butter German. For our new inmate was a Swedish girl. Her story, in short, was this:—
She had been in New York but two days. On the voyage over, they had had some terrible sickness on the vessel, and the poor child's mother had died very suddenly and had been buried in the sea. Her father had died long before.
This was, as you may think, a terrible shock to her. But she had hoped and hoped for the voyage to come to an end, because there was a certain brother of hers in America whom they were to meet at their landing, and though she was very lonely on the packet-ship, in which she and her mother and a certain family of the name of Hantsen—of whom she had much to say—were the only Swedes, still she expected to find the brother almost as soon, as I may say, as they saw the land.
She felt badly enough that he did not come on board with the quarantine officer. When the passengers were brought to Castle Garden, and no brother came, she felt worse. However, with the help of the clerks there, she got off a letter to him, somewhere in Jersey, and proposed to wait as long as they would let her, till he should come.
The second day there came a man to the Garden, who said he was a Dane, but he spoke Swedish well enough. He said her brother was sick, and had sent him to find her. She was to come with her trunks, and her mother's, and all their affairs, to his house, and the same afternoon they should go to where the brother was.
Without doubt or fear she went with this man, and spent the day at a forlorn sort of hotel which she described, but which I never could find again. Toward night the man came again and bade her take a bag, with her one change of dress, and come with him to her brother.
After a long ride through the city, they got out at a house which, thank God! was only one block from Fernando Street. And there this simple, innocent creature, as she went in, asked where her brother was, to meet only a burst of laughter from one or two coarse- looking men, and from half-a-dozen brazen-faced girls whom she hated, she said, the minute she saw them.
Except that an old woman took off her shawl and cloak and bonnet, and took away from her the travelling things she had in her hand, nobody took any care of her but to laugh at her, and mock her if she dared say anything.
She tried to go out to the door to find even the Dane who had brought her there, but she was given to understand that he was coming again for her, and that she must wait till he came. As for her brother, there was no brother there, nor had been any. The poor girl had been trapped, and saw that she had been trapped; she had been spirited away from everybody who ever heard of her mother, and was in the clutches, as she said to my mother afterward, of a crew of devils who knew nothing of love or of mercy.
They did try to make her eat and drink,—tried to make her drink champagne, or any other wine; but they had no fool to deal with. The girl did not, I think, let her captors know how desperate were her resolutions. But her eyes were wide open, and she was not going to lose any chance. She was all on the alert for her escape when, at eleven o'clock, the Dane came at last whom she had been expecting so anxiously.
The girl asked him for her brother, only to be put off by one excuse or another, and then to hear from him the most loathsome talk of his admiration, not to say his passion, for her.
They were nearly alone by this time, and he led her unresisting, as he thought, into another smaller room, brilliantly lighted, and, as she saw in a glance, gaudily furnished, with wine and fruit and cake on a side- table,—a room where they would be quite alone.
She walked simply across and looked at herself in the great mirror. Then she made some foolish little speech about her hair, and how pale she looked. Then she crossed to the sofa, and sat upon it with as tired an air as he might have expected of one who had lived through such a day. Then she looked up at him and even smiled upon him, she said, and asked him if he would not ask them for some cold water.
The fellow turned into the passage-way, well pleased with her submission, and in the same instant the girl was at the window as if she had flown across the room.
Fool! The window was made fast, not by any moving bolt, either. It was nailed down, and it did not give a hairs-breadth to her hand.
Little cared she for that. She sat on the window- seat, which was broad enough to hold her; she braced her feet against the foot of the bedstead, which stood just near enough to her; she turned enough to bring her shoulder against the window-sash, and then with her whole force she heaved herself against the sash, and the entire window, of course, gave way.
The girl caught herself upon the blind, which swung open before her. She pulled herself free from the sill and window-seat, and dropped fearless into the street.
The fall was not long. She lighted on her feet and ran as only fear could teach her to run. Where to, she knew not; but she thought she turned a corner before she heard any voices from behind.
Still she ran. And it was when she came to the corner of the next street that she heard for the first time the screams of pursuers.
She turned again, like a poor hunted hare as she was. But what was her running to theirs? She was passing our long fence in Fernando Street, and then for the first time she screamed for help.
It was that scream which waked me.
She saw the steeple of the church. She had a dim feeling that a church would be an asylum. So was it that she ran up our alley, to find that she was in a trap there.
And then it was that she fell against my door, that she cried twice, "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" and that the good God, who had heard her, sent me to draw her in.
We had to learn her language, in a fashion, and she to learn ours, before we understood her story in this way. But at the very first my mother made out that the girl had fled from savages who meant worse than death for her. So she understood why she was so frightened at every sound, and why at first she was afraid to stay with us, yet more afraid to go.
But this passed off in a day or two. She took to my mother with a sort of eager way which showed how she must have loved her own mother, and how much she lost when she lost her. And that was one of the parts of her sad story that we understood.
No one, I think, could help loving my mother; but here was a poor, storm-tossed creature who, I might say, had nothing else to love, seeing she had lost all trace of this brother, and here was my mother, soothing her, comforting her, dressing her wounds for her, trying to make her feel that God's world was not all wickedness; and the girl in return poured out her whole heart.
When my mother explained to her that she should not let her go away till her brother was found, then for the first time she seemed perfectly happy. She was indeed the loveliest creature I ever put my eyes on.
She was then about nineteen years old, of a delicate complexion naturally, which was now a little browned by the sea-air. She was rather tall than otherwise, but her figure was so graceful that I think you never thought her tall. Her eyes were perhaps deep-set, and of that strange gray which I have heard it said the goddesses in the Greek poetry had. Still, when she was sad, one saw the less of all this. It was not till she forgot her grief for the instant in the certainty that she might rest with my mother, so that her whole face blazed with joy, that I first knew what the perfect beauty of a perfect woman was.
Her name, it seemed, was Frida,—a name made from the name of one of the old goddesses among the Northmen, the same from whom our day Friday is named. She is the half- sister of Thor, from whom Thursday is named, and the daughter of Wodin, from whom Wednesday is named.
I knew little of all this then, but I did not wonder when I read afterward that this northern goddess was the Goddess of Love, the friend of song, the most beautiful of all their divinities,—queen of spring and light and everything lovely.
But surely never any one took fewer of the airs of a goddess than our Frida did while she was with us. She would watch my mother, as if afraid that she should put her hand to a gridiron or a tin dipper. She gave her to understand, in a thousand pretty ways, that she should be her faithful, loving, and sincere. servant. If she would only show her what to do, she would work for her as a child that loved her. And so indeed she did. My dear mother would laugh and say she was quite a fine lady now, for Frida would not let her touch broom nor mop, skimmer nor dusting-cloth.
The girl would do anything but go out upon an errand. She could not bear to see the other side of the fence. What she thought of it all I do not know. Whether she thought it was the custom in America for young men to live shut up with their mothers in enclosures of half an acre square, or whether she thought we two made some peculiar religious order, whose rules provided that one woman and one man should live together in a convent or monastery of their own, or whether she supposed half New York was made up, as Marco Polo found Pekin, of cottages or of gardens, I did not know, nor did I much care. I could see that here was provided a companion for my mother, who was else so lonely, and I very soon found that she was as much a companion for me.
So soon as we could understand her at all, I took the name of her brother and his address. When he wrote last he was tending a saw-mill at a place about seven miles away from Tuckahoe, in Jersey. But he said he was going to leave there at once, so that they need not write there. He sent the money for their passage, and promised, as I said, to meet them at New York.
This was a poor clew at the best. But I put a good face on it, and promised her I would find him if he could be found. And I spared no pains. I wrote to the postmaster at Tuckahoe, and to a minister I heard of there. I inquired of the Swedish consuls in New York and Philadelphia. Indeed, in the end, I went to Tuckahoe myself, with her, to inquire. But this was long after. However, I may say here, once for all, to use an old phrase of my mother's, we never found "hide nor hair" of him. And although this grieved Frida, of course, yet it came on her gradually, and as she had never seen him to remember him, it was not the same loss as if they had grown up together.
Meanwhile that first winter was, I thought, the pleasantest I had ever known in my life. I did not have to work very hard now, for my business was rather the laying out work for my men, and sometimes a nice job which needed my hand on my lathe at home, or in some other delicate affair that I could bring home with me.
We were teaching Frida English, my mother and I, and she and I made a great frolic of her teaching me Swedish. I would bring home Swedish newspapers and stories for her, and we would puzzle them out together,—she as much troubled to find the English word as I to find out the Swedish. Then she sang like a bird when she was about her household work, or when she sat sewing for my mother, and she had not lived with us a fortnight before she began to join us on Sunday evenings in the choruses of the Methodist hymns which my mother and I sang together. So then we made her sing Swedish hymns to us. And before she knew it, the great tears would brim over her deep eyes and would run down in pearls upon her cheek. Nothing set her to thinking of her old home as those Sunday evenings did. Of a Sunday evening we could make her go out with us to church sometimes. Not but then she would half cover her face with a veil, so afraid was she that we might meet the Dane. But I told her that the last place we should find him at would be at church on Sunday evening.
I have come far in advance of my story, that I might make any one who reads this life of mine to understand how naturally and simply this poor lost bird nestled down into our quiet life, and how the house that was built for two proved big enough for three. For I made some new purchases now, and fitted up the little middle chamber for Frida's own use. We had called it the "spare chamber" before, in joke. But now my mother fitted pretty curtains to it, and other hangings, without Frida's knowledge. I had a square of carpet made up at the warehouse for the middle of the floor, and by making her do one errand and another in the corner of the garden one pleasant afternoon in November, we had it all prettily fitted up for her room before she knew it. And a great gala we made of it when she came in from gathering the seeds of the calystegia, which she had been sent for.
She looked like a northern Flora as she came in, with her arms all festooned by the vines she had been pulling down. And when my mother made her come out to the door she had never seen opened before, and led her in, and told her that this pretty chamber was all her own, the pretty creature flushed crimson red at first, and then her quick tears ran over, and she fell on my mother's neck and kissed her as if she would never be done. And then she timidly held her hand out to me, too, as I stood in the doorway, and said, in her slow, careful English,—
"And you, too—and you, too. I must tank you both, also, especially. You are so good—so good to de poor lost girl!" That was a very happy evening.
But, as I say, I have gone ahead of my story. For before we had these quiet evenings we were fated to have many anxious ones and one stormy one.
The very first day that Frida was with us, I felt sure that the savages would make another descent upon us. They had heard her scream, that was certain. They knew she had not passed them, that was certain. They knew there was a coal-bin on the other side of our fence, that was certain. They would have reason enough for being afraid to have her at large, if, indeed, there were no worse passion than fear driving some of them in pursuit of her. I could not keep out of my mind the beastly look of the Irishman who asked me, with such an ugly leer on his face, if there were no passage through. Not that I told either of the two women of my fears. But, all the same, I did not undress myself for a week, and sat in the great easy-chair in our kitchen through the whole of every night, waiting for the least sound of alarm.
Next to the savages, I had always lived in fear of being discovered in my retreat by the police, who would certainly think it strange to find a man and his mother living in a shed, without any practicable outside door, in what they called a vacant lot.
But I have read of weak nations in history which were fain to call upon one neighbor whom they did not like to protect them against another whom they liked less. I made up my mind, in like wise, to go round to the police-station nearest me.
And so, having dressed myself in my black coat, and put on a round hat and gloves, I bought me a Malacca walking-stick, such as was then in fashion, and called upon the captain in style. I told him I lived next the church, and that on such and such a night there was a regular row among roughs, and that several of them went storming up the alley in a crowd. I said, "Although your men were there as quick as they could come, these fellows had all gone before they came." But then I explained that I had seen a fellow hanging about the alley in the daytime, who seemed to be there for no good; that there was a hand-cart kept there by a workman, who seemed to be an honest fellow, and, perhaps, all they wanted was to steal that; that, if I could, I would warn him. But meanwhile, I said, I had come round to the station to give the warning of my suspicions, that if my rattle was heard again, the patrolmen might know what was in the wind.
The captain was a good deal impressed by my make-up and by the ease of my manner. He affected to be perfectly well acquainted with me, although we had never happened to meet at the Century Club or at the Union League. I confirmed the favorable impression I had made by leaving my card, which I had had handsomely engraved: "MR. ROBINSON CRUSOE." With my pencil I added my down-town address, where, I said, a note or telegram would find me.
I was not a day too soon with my visit to this gentleman. That very night, after my mother and Frida had gone to bed, as I sat in my easychair, there came over me one of those strange intimations which I have never found it safe to disregard. Sometimes it is of good, and sometimes of bad. This time it made me certain that all was not well. To relieve my fears I lifted my ladder over the wall and dropped it in the alley. I swung myself down and carried it to the very end of the alley, to the place where I had dragged poor Frida in. The moon fell on the fence opposite ours. My wing-fence and hand-cart were all in shade. But everything was safe there.
Again I chided myself for my fears, when, as I looked up the alley to the street, I saw a group of four men come in stealthily. They said not a word, but I could make out their forms distinctly against the houses opposite.
I was caught in my own trap!
Not quite! They had not seen me, for I was wholly in shadow. I stepped quickly in at my own slide. I pushed it back and bolted it securely, and with my heart in my mouth, I waited at my hole of observation. In a minute more they were close around me, though they did not suspect I was so near.
They also had a dark-lantern, and, I thought, more than one. They spoke in low tones; but as they had no thought they had a hearer quite so near, I could hear all they said.
"I tell you it was this side, and this is the side I heard their deuced psalm-singing day before yesterday."
"What if he did hear psalm-singing? Are you going to break into a man's garden because he sings psalms? I came here to find out where the girl went to; and now you talk of psalm-singing and coal-bins." This from another, whose English was poor, and in whom I fancied I heard the Dane. It was clear enough that be spoke sense, and a sort of doubt fell on the whole crew; but speaker No. 1, with a heavy crowbar he had, smashed into my pine wall, as I have a right to call it now, with a force which made the splinters fly.
"I should think we were all at Niblo's," said a man of slighter build, "and that we were playing Humpty Dumpty. Because a girl flew out of a window, you think a fence opened to take her in. Why should she not go through a door? and he kicked with his foot upon the heavy sloping cellar-door of the church, which just rose a little from the pavement. It was the doorway which they used there when they took in their supply of coal. The moon fell full on one side of it. To my surprise it was loose and gave way.
"Here is where the girl flew to, and here is where Bully Bigg, the donkey, let her slip out of his fingers. I knew he was a fool, but I did not know he was such a fool," said the Dane (if he were the Dane).
I will not pretend to write down the oaths and foul words which came in between every two of the words I have repeated.
"Fool yourself!" replied the Bully; "and what sort of a fool is the man who comes up a blind alley looking after a girl that will not kiss him when he bids her?"
"Anyway," put in another of the crew, who had just now lifted the heavy cellar-door, "other people may find it handy to hop down here when the 'beaks' are too near them. It's a handy place to know of in a dark night, if the dear deacons do choose to keep it open for a poor psalm-singing tramp, who has no chance at the station- house. Here, Lopp, you are the tallest,—jump in and tell us what is there;" and at this moment the Dane caught sight of my unfortunate ladder, lying full in the moonlight. I could see him seize it and run to the doorway with it with a deep laugh and some phrase of his own country talk, which I did not understand.
"The deacons are very good," said the savage who had lifted the cellar-door. "They make everything handy for us poor fellows."
And though he had not planted the ladder, he was the first to run down, and called for the rest to follow. The Dane was second, Lopp was third, and "The Bully," as the big rascal seemed to be called by distinction, was the fourth.
I saw him disappear from my view with a mixture of wonder and terror which I will not describe. I seized my light overcoat, which always hung in the passage. I flung open my sliding-door and shut it again behind me. I looked into the black of the cellar to see the reflections from their distant lanterns, and without a sound I drew up my ladder. Then I ran to the head of the alley and sounded my rattle as I would have sounded the trumpet for a charge in battle. The officers joined me in one moment.
"I am the man who spoke to the captain about these rowdies. Four of them are in the cellar of the church yonder now."
"Do you know who?"
"One they called Lopp, and one they called Bully Bigg," said I. "I do not know the others' names."
The officers were enraptured.
I led them, and two other patrolmen who joined us, to the shelter of my wing-wall. In a few minutes the head of the Dane appeared, as he was lifted from below. With an effort and three or four oaths, he struggled out upon the ground, to be seized and gagged the moment he stepped back. With varying fortunes, Bigg and Lopp emerged, and were seized and handcuffed in turn. The fourth surrendered on being summoned.
What followed comes into the line of daily life and the morning newspaper so regularly that I need not describe it. Against the Dane it proved that endless warrants could be brought immediately. His lair of stolen baggage and other property was unearthed, and countless sufferers claimed their own. I was able to recover Frida's and her mother's possessions—the locks on the trunks still unbroken. The Dane himself would have been sent to the Island on I know not how many charges, but that the Danish minister asked for him that he might be hanged in Denmark, and he was sent and hanged accordingly.
Lopp was sent to Sing-Sing for ten years, and has not yet been pardoned.
Bigg and Cordon were sent to Blackwell's Island for three years each. And so the land had peace for that time.
That winter, as there came on one and another idle alarm that Frida's brother might be heard from, my heart sank with the lowest terror lest she should go away. And in the spring I told her that if she went away I was sure I should die. And the dear girl looked down, and looked up, and said she thought—she thought she should, too. And we told my mother that we had determined that Frida should never go away while we stayed there. And she approved.
So I wrote a note to the minister of the church which had protected us so long, and one night we slid the board carefully, and all three walked round, fearless of the Dane, and Frida and I were married.
It was more than three years after, when I received by one post three letters, which gave us great ground for consultation. The first was from my old friend and patron, the Spaniard. He wrote to me from Chicago, where he, in his turn, had fallen in with a crew of savages, who had stripped him of all he had, under the pretext of a land-enterprise they engaged him in, and had left him without a real, as he said. He wanted to know if I could not find him some clerkship, or even some place as janitor, in New York.
The second letter was from old Mr. Henry in Philadelphia, who had always employed me after my old master's death. He said that the fence around the lot in Ninety-ninth Avenue might need some repairs, and he wished I would look at it. He was growing old, he said, and he did not care to come to New York. But the Fordyce heirs would spend ten years in Europe.
The third letter was from Tom Grinnell.
I wrote to Mr. Henry that I thought he had better let me knock up a little office, where a keeper might sleep, if necessary; that there was some stuff with which I could put up such an office, and that I had an old friend, a Spaniard, who was an honest fellow, and if he might have his bed in the office, would take gratefully whatever his services to the estate proved worth. He wrote me by the next day's mail that I might engage the Spaniard and finish the office. So I wrote to the Spaniard and got a letter from him, accepting the post provided for him. Then I wrote to Tom Grinnell.
The last day we spent at our dear old home, I occupied myself in finishing the office as Friend Henry bade me. I made a "practicable door," which opened from the passage on Church Alley. Then I loaded my hand-cart with my own chest and took it myself, in my working clothes, to the Vanderbilt Station, where I took a brass check for it.
I could not wait for the Spaniard, but I left a letter for him, giving him a description of the way I managed the goats, and directions to milk and fatten them, and to make both butter and cheese.
At half-past ten a "crystal," as those cabs were then called, came to the corner of Fernando Street and Church Alley, and so we drove to the station. I left the key of the office, directed to the Spaniard, in the hands of the baggage-master.
When I took leave of my castle, as I called it, I carried with me for relics the great straw hat I had made, my umbrella, and one of my parrots; also I forgot not to take the money I formerly mentioned, which had lain by me so long useless that it was grown rusty and tarnished, and could scarcely pass for money till it had been a little rubbed and handled. With these relics and with my wife's and mother's baggage and my own chest, we arrived at our new home.
BREAD ON THE WATERS A WASHINGTON CHRISTMAS
[No. This story also is "Invented Example." But it is founded on facts. It is a pleasure to me, writing fifty-four years after the commission intrusted to me by the late Mrs. Fales, to say that that is a real name, and that her benevolence at a distance is precisely represented here.
Perhaps the large history of the world would be differently written but for that kindness of hers.
I was a very young clergyman, and the remittance she made to me was the first trust of the same kind which had ever been confided to me.]
"Only think, Matty, papa passed right by me when I was sitting with my back to the fire and stitching away on his book-mark without my once seeing him! But he was so busy talking to mamma that he never saw what I was doing, and I huddled it under a newspaper before he came back again. Well, I have got papa's present done, but I cannot keep out of mamma's way. Matty, dear, if I will sit in the sun and keep a shawl on, may I not sit in your room and work? It is not one bit cold there. Really, Matty, it is a great deal warmer than it was yesterday."
"Dear child," said Matty, to whom everybody came so readily for advice and help, "I can do better for you than that. You shall come into the study; papa will be away all the morning, and I will have the fire kept up there,—and mamma shall never come near you."
All this, and a thousand times more of plotting and counterplotting, was going on among four children and their elders in a comfortable, free-and-easy seeming household in Washington, as the boys and girls, young men and young women were in the last agonies of making ready for Christmas. Matty is fully entitled to be called a young woman, when we see her. She has just passed her twenty-first birthday. But she looks as fresh and pretty as when she was seventeen, and certainly she is a great deal pleasanter though she be wiser. She is the oldest of the troop. Tom, the next, is expected from Annapolis this afternoon, and Beverly from Charlotte. Then come four boys and girls whose ages and places the reader must guess at as we go on.
The youngest of the family were still young enough to write the names of the presents which they would be glad to receive, or to denote them by rude hieroglyphs, on large sheets of paper. They were wont to pin up these sheets on certain doors, which, by long usage in this free-and-easy family, had come to be regarded as the bulletin-boards of the establishment. Well-nigh every range of created things had some representation on these bulletins,—from an ambling pony round to a "boot- buttenner," thus spelled out by poor Laura, who was constantly in disgrace, because she always appeared latest at the door when the children started for church, to ride, or for school. The youngsters still held to the theory of announcing thus their wants in advance. Horace doubted whether he were not too old. But there was so much danger that nobody would know how much he needed a jig-saw, that he finally compromised with his dignity, wrote on a virgin sheet of paper, "gig-saw," signed his name, "Horace Molyneux, Dec. 21," and left his other presents to conjecture.
And of course at the very end, as Santa Claus and his revels were close upon them, while the work done had been wonderful, that which we ought to have done but which we had left undone, was simply terrible. Here were pictures that must be brought home from the frame-man, who had never pretended he would send them; there were ferns and lycopodiums in pots which must be brought home from the greenhouse; here were presents for other homes, which must not only be finished, but must be put up in paper and sent before night, so as to appear on other trees. Every one of these must be shown to mamma, an approved by her and praised; and every one must be shown to dear Matty, and praised and approved by her. And yet by no accident must Matty see her own presents or dream that any child has remembered her, or mamma see HERS or think herself remembered.
And Matty has all her own little list to see to, while she keeps a heart at leisure from itself to soothe and sympathize. She has to correct the mistakes, to repair the failures, to respect the wonder, to refresh the discouragement, of each and all the youngsters. Her own Sunday scholars are to be provided with their presents. The last orders are to be given for the Christmas dinners of half-a-dozen families of vassals, mostly black or of some shade of black, who never forgot their vassalage as Christmas came round. Turkey, cranberry, apples, tea, cheese, and butter must be sent to each household of these vassals, as if every member were paralyzed except in the muscles of the jaw. But, all the same, Matty or her mother must be in readiness all the morning and afternoon to receive the visits of all the vassals,—who, so far as this form of homage went, did not seem to be paralyzed at all.
For herself, Matty took possession of the dining- room, as soon as she could clear it of the breakfast equipage, of the children and of the servants, and here, with pen and ink, with wrapping-paper and twine, with telegraph blanks and with the directory, and with Venty as her Ariel messenger—not so airy and quick as Ariel, but quite as willing—Matty worked her wonders, and gave her audiences, whether to vassals from without or puzzled children from within.
Venty was short for Ventidius. But this name, given in baptism, was one which Venty seldom heard.
Matty corded up this parcel, and made Venty cord up that; wrote this note of compliment, that of inquiry, that of congratulation, and sent Venty on this, that, and another errand with them; relieved Flossy's anxieties and poor Laura's in ways which have been described; made sure that the wagon should be at the station in ample time for Beverly's arrival; and at last, at nearly one o'clock, called Aunty Chloe (who was in waiting on everybody as a superserviceable person, on the pretence that she was needed), bade Aunty pick up the scraps, sweep the floor, and bring the room to rights. And so, having attended to everybody beside herself, to all their wishes and hopes and fears, poor Matty—or shall I say, dear Matty—ran off to her own room, to finish her own presents and make her own last preparations.
She had kept up her spirits as best she could all the morning, but, at any moment when she was alone, her spirits had fallen again. She knew it, and she knew why. And now she could not hold out any longer. She and her mother, thank God, never had any secrets. And as she ran by her mother's door she could not help tapping, to be sure if she had come home.
Yes, she had come home. "Come in!" and Matty ran in.
Her mother had not even taken off her hat or her gloves. She had flung herself on the sofa, as if her walk had been quite too much for her; her salts and her handkerchief were in her hands, and when she saw it was Matty, as she had hoped when she spoke, she would not even pretend she had not been in tears.
In a moment Matty was on her knees on the floor by the sofa, and somehow had her left arm round about her mother's neck.
"Dear, dear mamma! What is it, what is the matter?"
"My dear, dear Matty," replied her mother, just succeeding in speaking without sobs, and speaking the more easily because she stroked the girl's hair and caressed her as she spoke, "do not ask, do not try to know. You will know, if you do not guess, only too soon. And now the children will be better, and papa will get through Christmas better, if you do not know, my darling."
"No, dear mamma," said Matty, crossing her mother's purpose almost for the first time that she remembered, but wholly sure that she was right in doing so,—"No, dear mamma, it is not best so. Indeed, it is not, mamma! I feel in my bones that it is not!" This she said with a wretched attempt to smile, which was the more ghastly because the tears were running down from both their faces.
"You see I have tried, mamma. I knew all day yesterday that something was wrong, and at breakfast this morning I knew it. And I have had to hold up—with the children and all these people—with the feeling that any minute the hair might break and the sword fall. And I know I shall do better if you tell me. You see the boys will be here before dark, and of course they will see, and what in the world shall I say to them?"
"What, indeed?" said her poor mother. "Terrible it is, dear child, because your father is so wretched. I have just come from him. He would not let me stay, and yet for the minute I was there, I saw that no one else could come in to goad him. Dear, dear papa, he is so resolute and brave, and yet any minute I was afraid that he would break a blood-vessel and fall dead before me. Oh, Matty, Matty, my darling, it is terrible!"
And this time the poor woman could not control herself longer, but gave way to her sobs, and her voice fairly broke, so that she was inarticulate, as she laid her cheek against her daughter's on the sofa.
"What is terrible? Dear mamma, you must tell me!"
"I think I must tell you, Matty, my darling. I believe if I cannot tell some one, I shall die."
Then Mrs. Molyneux told the whole horror to Matty. Here was her husband charged with the grossest plunder of the treasury, and now charged even in the House of Representatives. It had been whispered about before, and had been hinted at in some of the lower newspapers, but now even a committee of Congress had noticed it, and had "given him an opportunity to clear himself." There was no less a sum than forty-seven thousand dollars, in three separate payments, charged to him at the Navy Department as long ago as the second and third years of the Civil War. At the Navy they had his receipts for it. Not that he had been in that department then any more than he was now. He was then chief clerk in the Bureau of Internal Improvement, as he was now Commissioner there. But this was when the second Rio Grande expedition was fitted out; and from Mr. Molyneux's knowledge of Spanish, and his old connection with the Santa Fe trade, this particular matter had been intrusted to him.
"Yes, dear mamma!"
"Well, papa has it all down on his own cashbook; that book he carries in his breast-pocket. There are the three payments, and then all the transfers he made to the different people. One, was that old white-haired Spaniard with the harelip, who used to come here at the back door, so that he should not be seen at the Department. But it was before you remember. The others were in smaller sums. But the whole thing was done in three weeks, and then the expedition sailed, and papa had enough else to think of, and has never thought of it since, till ten or fifteen days ago, when somebody in the Eleventh Auditor's office discovered this charge, and his receipt for this money."
"Well, dear mamma?"
"Well, dear child, that is all, but that now the newspapers have got hold of it, and the Committee on Retrenchment, who are all new men, with their reputations to make, have got hold of it, and some of them really think, you know, that papa has stolen the money!" And she broke down crying again.
"But he can show his accounts, mamma!" What are his accounts worth? He must show the vouchers, as they are called. He must show these people's receipts, and what has become of these people; what they did with the money. He must show everything. Well, when the 'Copperhead' first spoke of it—that was a fortnight ago—papa was really pleased. For he said it would be a good chance to bring out a piece of war history. He said that in our Bureau we had never had any credit for the Rio Grande successes, that they were all our thunder; because THEN he could laugh about this horrid thing. He said the Navy had taken all the boners, while we deserved them all. And he said if these horrid 'Copperhead' and 'Argus' and 'Scorpion' people would only publish the vouchers half as freely as they published the charges, we should get a little of the credit that was our due."
"Well, mamma, and what is the trouble now?"
"Why, papa was so sure that he would do nothing until an official call came. But on Monday it got into Congress. That hairy man from the Yellowstone brought in a resolution or something, and the Committee was ordered to inquire. And when the order came down, papa told Mr. Waltsingham to bring him the papers, and, Matty, the papers were not there!"
"Stolen!" cried Matty, understanding the crisis for the first time.
"Yes—perhaps—or lost—hidden somewhere. You have no idea of the work of those days night work and all that. Many a time your father did not undress for a week."
"And now he must remember where he put a horrid pile of papers, eleven, twelve years ago. Mamma, that pile is stolen. That odious Greenhithe stole it. He lives in Philadelphia now, and he has put up these newspapers to this lie."
Mr. Greenhithe was an underclerk in the Internal Improvement Bureau, who had shown an amount of attention to Miss Matty, which she had disliked and had refused to receive. She had always said he was bad and would come to a bad end, and when he was detected in a low trick, selling stationery which he had stolen from the supply room, and was discharged in disgrace, Matty had said it was good enough for him.
These were her reasons for pronouncing at once that he had stolen the vouchers and had started the rumors.
"I do not know. Papa does not know. He hardly tries to guess. He says either way it is bad. If the vouchers are stolen, he is in fault, for he is responsible for the archives; if he cannot produce the vouchers, then all the country is down on him for stealing. I only hope," said poor Mrs. Molyneux, "that they won't say our poor old wagon is a coach and six;" and this time she tried to smile.
And now she had told her story. All last night, while the children were asleep, Mr. Molyneux had been at the office, even till four o'clock in the morning, taking old dusty piles from their lairs and searching for those wretched vouchers. And mamma had been waiting—shall one not say, had been weeping?—here at home. That was the reason poor papa had looked so haggard at breakfast this morning.
This was all mamma had to tell. She had been to the office this morning, but papa would not let her stay. He must see all comers, just as if nothing had happened, was happening, or was going to happen.
Well! Matty did make her mother take off her jacket and her hat and her gloves. She even made her drink a glass of wine and lie down. And then the poor girl retired to her own room, with such appetite as she might for taking the last stitches in worsted work, for stippling in the lights into drawings, for writing the presentation lines in books, and for doing the thousand little niceties in the way of finishing touches which she had promised the children to do for them.
Her dominant feeling—yes, it was a dominant passion, as she knew—was simply rage against this miserable Greenhithe, this cowardly sneak who was thus taking his revenge upon her, because she had been so cold to him. Or was it that he made up to her because he was already in trouble at the Office and hoped she would clear him with her father? Either way he was a snake and a scorpion, but he had worked out for himself a terrible revenge. Poor Matty! She tried to think what she could do, how she could help, for that was the habit of her life. But this was now hard indeed. Her mind would not now take that turn. All that it would turn to was to the wretched and worse than worthless question, what punishment might fall on him for such utter baseness and wickedness.
All the same the children must have their lunch, and they must not know that anything was the matter. Oh dear! this concealment was the worst of all!
So they had their lunch. And poor Matty counselled again, and helped again, and took the last stitches, and mended the last breaks, and waited and wondered, and tried to hope, till at five o'clock an office messenger came up with this message.
4.45 P.M. DEAR MATTY,—I shall not come up to dinner. There is pressing work here. Tell mamma not to sit up for me. I have my key. I have no chance to get my things for the children. Will you see to it? Here is twenty dollars, and if you need more let them send in the bill. I had only thought of that jig-saw—was it?—that Horace wants. See that the dear fellow has a good one.
Love to all and ever yours,
"Poor, dear papa," said Matty aloud, shedding tears in spite of herself. "To be thinking of jig-saws and children in all this horrid hunt! As if hunting for anything was not the worst trial of all, always." And at once the brave girl took down her wraps and put on her walking-shoes, that her father's commissions might be met before their six-o'clock dinner. And she determined that first of all she would meet Tom at the station.
At the station she met Tom; that was well. Matty had not been charged to secrecy; that was well. She told him all the story, not without adding her suspicions, and giving him some notion of her rage.
And Tom was angry enough,—there was a crumb of comfort there. But Tom went off on another track. Tom distrusted the Navy Department. He had been long enough at Annapolis to doubt the red tape of the bureaus with which his chiefs had to do. "If the navy had the money, the navy had the vouchers," that was Tom's theory. He knew a chief clerk in the navy, and Tom was going at once round there.
But Matty held him in check at least for the moment. Whatever else he did, he must come home first; he must see mamma and he must see the children, and he must have dinner. She had not told him yet how well he looked, and how handsome he was.
But after Tom had seen them he slipped off, pretended he had unfinished preparations to make, and went right to the Department, forced his way in because he was Mr. Molyneux's son, and found his poor father with Zeigler, the chief clerk, still on this wretched and fruitless overhaul of the old files. Tom stated frankly, in his off-hand, business-like way, what his theory was. Neither Zeigler nor Tom's father believed in it in the least. Tom knew nothing, they said; the Navy paid the money, but the Navy was satisfied with our receipt, and should be.
Tom continued to say, "If the Navy paid the money the Navy must have the vouchers;" and at last, more to be rid of him than with any hope of the result, Mr. Molyneux let the eager fellow go round to his friend, Eben Ricketts, and see if Eben would not give an hour or two of his Christmas to looking up the thing. Mr. Molyneux even went so far as to write a frank line to Mr. Ricketts, and enclosed a letter which he had had that day from the chairman of the House Committee,—a letter which was smooth enough in the language, but horrible enough in the thing.
Ah me! Had not Ricketts read it all already in the evening "Argus"? He was willing, if he could, to serve. So he with Tom went round and found the Navy Department messenger, and opened and lighted up the necessary rooms, and they spent three hours of their Christmas there. Meanwhile Beverly had arrived from Norfolk. He had a frolic with the children, and then called his mother and Matty away from them.
"What in thunder is the matter?" said the poor boy.
And they told him. How could they help telling him? And so soon as the story was finished, the boy had his coat on and was putting on his boots. He went right down to his father's office, he made old Stratton admit him, and told his father he too had reported for duty.
And at last Christmas morning dawned,—gray enough and grim enough.
In that house the general presenting was reserved for evening after dinner,—when in olden days there had always been a large Christmas-tree lighted and dressed for the children and their little friends. As the children had grown older, and the trees at the Sunday-school and elsewhere had grown larger, the family tree had grown smaller, and on this day was to be simply atypical tree, a little suggestion of a tree, between the front windows; while most of the presents of every sort and kind were to be dispersed—where room could be made for them—in any part of the front parlors. All the grand ceremonial of present-giving was thus reserved to the afternoon of Christmas, because then it was certain papa would be at home, Tom and Beverly would both be ready, and, indeed, as the little people confessed, they themselves would have more chance to be quite prepared.
But none the less was the myth of Santa Claus and the stockings kept up, although that was a business of less account, and one in which the children themselves had no share, except to wonder, to enjoy, and to receive. You will observe that there is a duality in most of the enjoyments of life,—that if you have a long-expected letter from your brother who is in Yokohama, by the same mail or the next mail there comes a letter from your sister who is in Cawnpore. And so it was of Christmas at this Molyneux house. Besides the great wonders, like those wrought out by Aladdin's slave of the lamp, there were the wonders, less gigantic but not less exquisite, of the morning hours, wrought out by the slave of the ring. How this series of wonders came about, the youngest of the children did not know, and were still imaginative enough and truly wise enough not to inquire.
While, then, the two young men and their father were at one or the other Department, now on step-ladders, handing down dusty old pasteboard boxes, now under gaslights, running down long indexes with inquiring fingers and unwinking eyes, Matty and her mother watched and waited till eleven o'clock came, not saying much of what was on the hearts of both, but sometimes just recurring to it, as by some invisible influence,—an influence which would overcome both of them at the same moment. For the mother and daughter were as two sisters, not parted far, even in age, and not parted at all in sympathy. For occupation, they were wrapping up in thin paper a hundred barley dogs, cats, eagles, locomotives, suns, moons, and stars,—with little parcels of nuts, raisins, and figs, large red apples, and bright Florida oranges,—all of which were destined to be dragged out of different stockings at daybreak.
"And now, dear, dear mamma," said Matty, "you will go to bed,—please do, dear mamma." This was said as she compelled the last obstinate eagle to accept his fate and stay in his wrapping-paper, from which he had more than once struggled out, with the instincts of freedom.
"Please do, dear mamma; I will sort these all out, and will be quite sure that each has his own. At least, let us come upstairs together. I will comb your hair for you; that is one of the little comforts. And you shall get into bed and see me arrange them, and if I do it wrong you can tell me."
Poor mamma, she yielded to her—as who does not yield, and because it was easier to go upstairs than to stay. And the girl led her up and made herself a toilet woman indeed, and did put her worn-out mamma into bed, and then hurried to the laundry, where she was sure she could find what Diana had been bidden to reserve there—a pair of clean stockings belonging to each member of the family. The youngest children, alas, who would need the most room for their spread-eagles and sugar locomotives, had the smallest feet and legs. But nature compensates for all things, and Matty did not fail to provide an extra pair of her mother's longest stockings for each of "the three," as the youngest were called in the councils of their elders. So a name was printed by Santa Claus on a large red card and pinned upon each receptacle, FLOSSY or LAURA, while all were willing to accept of his bounties contained within, even if they did not recognize yarn or knitting as familiar. Matty hurried back with their treasures. She brought from her own room the large red tickets, already prepared, and then, on the floor by her mother's bedside, assorted the innumerable parcels, and filled each stocking full.
Dear girl! she had not wrongly guessed. There was just occupation enough, and just little enough, for the poor mother's anxious, tired thought. Matty was wise. She asked fewer and fewer questions; fewer and fewer she made her journeys to the great high fender, where she pinned all these stiff models of gouty legs. And when the last hung there quietly, the girl had the exquisite satisfaction of seeing that her mother was fast asleep. She would not leave the room. She turned the gas-light down to a tiny bead. She slipped off her own frock, put on her mother's heavy dressing-gown, lay down quietly by her side without rousing her, and in a little while—for with those so young this resource is well-nigh sure—she slept too.
It was five o'clock when she was wakened by her father's hand. He led her out into his own dressing- room, and before she spoke she kissed him!
She knew what his answer would be. She knew that from his heavy face. But all the same she tried to smile, and she said,
"Found? No, no, dear child, nor ever will be. How is mamma?"
And Matty told him, and begged him to come and sleep in her own little room, because the children would come in in a rout at daybreak. But no! he would not hear to that. "Whatever else is left, dear Matty, we have each other. And we will not begin—on what will be a new life to all of us—we will not begin by 'bating a jot of the dear children's joys. Matty, that is what I have been thinking of all the way as I walked home. But maybe I should not have said it, but that Beverly said it just now to me. Dear fellow! I cannot tell you the comfort it was to me to see him come in! I told him he should not have come, but he knew that he made me almost happy. He is a fine fellow, Matty, and all night long he has shown the temper and the sense of a man."
For a moment Matty could not say a word. Her eyes were all running over with tears. She kissed her father again, and then found out how to say, "I shall tell him what you say, papa, and there will be two happy children in this house, after all."
So she ran to Beverly's room, found him before he was undressed, and told him. And the boy who was just becoming a man, and the girl who, without knowing it, had become a woman, kissed each other; held each other for a minute, each by both hands, looked each other so lovingly in the eyes, comforted each other by the infinite comfort of love, and then said good-night and were asleep. Tom had stolen to bed without waking his mother or his sister, some hours before.
Yes! They all slept. The little ones slept, though they had been so certain that they should not sleep one wink from anxiety. This poor jaded man slept because he must sleep. His poor wife slept because she had not slept now for two nights before. And Matty and Tom and Beverly slept because they were young and brave and certain and pure, and because they were between seventeen and twenty-two years of age. This is all to say that they could seek God's help and find it. This is to say that they were well-nigh omnipotent over earthly ills,—so far, at the least, that sleep came when sleep was needed.
But not after seven o'clock! Venty and Diana had been retained by Flossy and Laura to call them at five minutes of seven, and Laura and Flossy had called the others. And at seven o'clock, precisely, a bugle-horn sounded in the children's quarters, and then four grotesque riders, each with a soldier hat made of newspaper, each with a bright sash girt round a dressing- gown, each with bare feet stuck into stout shoes, came storming down the stairs, and as soon as the lower floor was reached, each mounted on a hobby-horse or stick, and with riot not to be told came knocking at Matty's door, at Beverly's, and at Tom's. And these all appeared, also with paper soldier hats upon their heads, and girt in some very spontaneous costume, and so the whole troop proceeded with loud fanfaron and drumbeat to mamma's door and knocked for admission, and heard her cheery "Come in." And papa and mamma had heard the bugle-calls, and had wrapped some sort of shawls around their shoulders, and were sitting up in bed, they also with paper soldier hats upon them; and one scream of "Merry Christmas" resounded as the doors flew open,—and then a wild rampage of kissing and of hugging as the little ones rushed for the best places they could find on the bed— not to say in it. This was the Christmas custom.
And Tom rolled up a lounge on one side of the bed, which after a fashion widened it, and Beverly brought up his mother's easy-chair, which had earned the name of "Moses' seat," on the other side, and thus, in a minute, the great broad bed was peopled with the whole family, as jolly, if as absurd, a sight as the rising sun looked upon. And then! Flossy and Beverly were deputed to go to the fender, and to bring the crowded, stiff stockings, whose crackle was so delicate and exquisite; and so, youngest by youngest, they brought forth their treasures, not indeed gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but what answered the immediate purposes better, barley cats, dogs, elephants and locomotives, figs, raisins, walnuts, and pecans.
Yes, and for one noisy half-hour not one person thought of the cloud which hung over the house only the night before!
But such happy forgetfulness cannot last forever. There was the Christmas breakfast. And Tom tried to tell of Academy times, and Beverly tried to tell stories of the University. But it was a hard pull. The lines under papa's eyes were only too dark. And all of a sudden he would start, and ask some question which showed that he did not know what they were talking of. Matty had taken care to have the newspapers out of the way; but everybody knew why they were out of the way,—and perhaps this made things worse. Poor blundering Laura must needs say, "That is the good of Christmas, that there are no horrid newspapers for people to bother with," when everybody above Horace's age knew that there were papers somewhere, and soon Horace was bright enough to see what he had not been told in words,—that something was going wrong.
And as soon as breakfast was done, Flossy cried out, "And now papa will tell us the story of the bear! Papa always tells us that on Christmas morning. Laura, you shall come; and, Horace, you shall sit there." And then her poor papa had to take her up and kiss her, and say that this morning he could not stop to tell stories, that he had to go to the Department. And then Flossy and Laura fairly cried. It was too bad. They hated the Department. There never could be any fun but what that horrid old Department came in. And when Horace found that Tom was going to the Department too, and that Bev meant to go with him, he was mad, and said he did not see what was the use of having Christmas. Here he had tin- foil and plaster upstairs, and little Watrous had lent him a set of government medals, and they should have such a real good time if Bev would only stay. He wished the Department was at the bottom of the Potomac. Matty fairly had to take the scolding boy out of the room.
Mr. Molyneux, poor fellow, undertook the soothing of Flossy. "Anyway, old girl, you shall meet me as you go to church, and we will go through the avenue together, and I will show you the new Topsy girl selling cigars at Pierre's tobacco shop. She is as big as Flossy. She has not got quite such golden hair, but she never says one word to her papa, because she is never cross to him."
"That's because he is never kind to her," said the quick child, speaking wiser than she knew.
For Matty, she got a word with Tom, and he too promised that they would be away from the Department in time to meet the home party, and that all of them should go to church together.
CHURCH AND SERMON
And, accordingly, as Mrs. Molyneux with her little troop crossed F Street, they met the gentlemen all coming toward them. They broke up into groups, and Tom and Matty got their first real chance for talk since they had parted the night before. No! Tom had found no clue at the Navy Department. And although Eben Ricketts had been good as gold, and had stayed and worked with Tom till long after midnight, Eben had only worked to show good-will, for Eben had not the least faith that there was any clue there. Eben had said that if old Mr. Whilthaugh, who knew the archive rooms through and through, had not been turned out, they could do in fifteen minutes what had cost them six hours, and that old Mr. Whilthaugh, without looking, could tell whether it was worth while to look. But old Mr. Whilthaugh had been turned out, and Eben, even, did not know precisely what had become of him. He thought he had gone back into Pennsylvania, where his wife came from, but he did not know.
"But, Matty, if nothing turns up to-day, I go to Pennsylvania to-morrow to find this old Mr. Whilthaugh. For I shall die if I stay here; and all the Eben Rickettses in the world will never persuade me that the vouchers are not in that archive-room. If the Navy did the work, the Navy must have the vouchers."
Then Matty ventured to ask what she and her mother had wondered about once and again,—why these particular bits of paper were so necessary. Surely other vouchers, or certified copies, or books of account could be found somewhere!
"Yes! I know; you would say so. And if it were all yesterday, and was all in these lazy times of peace, you would say true. But you see, in the first place, this is ever so long ago. Then, in the second place, it was in the heat of war, when everything was on a gigantic scale, and things had to be done in unheard-of ways. Then, chiefly, this particular business involved the buying up of I do not know who among the Rebels there in Texas, and among their allies on the other side the Rio Grande. This old Spaniard, whom mamma remembers, and whom I just remember, he was the chief captain among the turncoats, and there were two or three others, F. F. men in their places,—"First Family men," that means, you know; but after they did this work they did not stay in their places long. No! papa says he was mighty careful; that he had three of the scoundrels sworn before notaries, or rather before one notary, and had their receipts and acknowledgments stamped with his notary's seal. Still, it did not do to have a word said in public then. And after everything succeeded so perfectly, after the troops landed without a shot, and found all the base ready for them, corn and pork just where they wanted it,—why, then everybody was too gratified to think of imagining, as they do now, that papa had stolen that money that bought the pork and the corn."
"I wish they were only half as grateful now," he said, after a pause.
"Tom," said Matty, eagerly, "who was that notary?"
"I thought of that, too," said Tom. "There is no doubt who it was. It was old Gilbert; you must remember his sign, just below Faulkner's on the avenue. But in the first place, Gilbert died just after our taking Richmond. In the second place, he never knew what the papers were—and he executed twenty such sets of papers every day, very likely. All he could say, at the very best, would be that at such a time father brought in an old Spaniard and two or three other greasers, and that he took their acknowledgments of something."
"I do not know that, Tom," said the girl, without flinching at his mannish information. "If notaries in Washington are anything like notaries in novels, that man kept a record or register of his work. If he was not very unlike everybody else who lives and works here, he left a very destitute widow when he died. Tom, I shall go after church and hunt up the Widow Gilbert. I shall ask her for her husband's books, and shall tell her why I want them."
The girl dropped her voice and said: "Tom, I shall ask her IN HIS NAME."
"God grant it does any good, dear girl," said he. "Far be it from me to say that you shall not try—"
But here he stopped speaking, for he felt Matty's arm shake in his, and her whole frame trembled. Tom had only to keep his eyes before him to see why.
Mr. Greenhithe, Matty's old admirer, the clerk who had been dismissed for stealing, was just entering the church, and even touched his hat to her as she went by.
Tom resisted his temptation to thrash him then and there. He said,—
"Matty, I believe I will tackle that man!"
"Yes, Matty, I can keep my temper, and he cannot keep his. He has one advantage over most knaves, that he is not only a knave of the first water, but he is sometimes a fool, too. If it were only decent and right to take him into Downing's saloon, and give him just one more glass of whiskey than the blackguard would care to pay for, I could get at his whole story."
"But, Tom, I thought you were so sure the Navy had the papers!"
"Well! well!" said Tom, a little annoyed, as eager people are when other eager people remember their words against them. "I was sure—I was wholly sure—till I left Eben Ricketts. But after that—well, of course, we ought to pull every string."
"Tom!" This with a terrible gulp.
"Tom, you don't think I ought to speak with him!"
"Why, Tom, yes; if he does know—if he is holding this up in terror, Tom, I could make him do what I chose once, Tom. You don't think I ought to try?"
"Matty, if you ever speak to that snake again, I will thrash him within an inch of his life, and I will never say a word to you as long as you live."
"That's my dear Tom!" And, hidden as they were, and crying as she was under her veil, she flung her arms around him and kissed him.
"All the same," said Tom, after he had kissed her again and again,—"all the same, I shall find out, after church, where the snake is staying. I shall go to the hotel and take a cigar. I shall offer him one, and he is so mean and stingy that he will take it. Perhaps this may be one of his fool days. Perhaps somebody else will treat him to the whiskey. No, Matty! honor bright, I will not, though that ten cents might give us all a Merry Christmas. Honor bright, I will not treat. But I am not a saint, Matty! If anybody else treats, I must not be expected to be far away."