From The Girls' Own Annual (1917)
“It's a risk,” cautioned Ellen Hunter's friends. “You can't tell what traits may crop out as she grows older. You've always believed —”
“Yes, I know. I've always believed in the sins of the fathers descending to the poor little thirds and fourths,” sighed Ellen. But all her theories and fears vanished at sight in the orphanage of the tiny girl-creature her soul coveted. No sins-of-fathers could lurk in that small, sweet spirit!
“I must have Elsie,” Ellen cried. “Such a little, little thing, but she can fill such a big hole in my empty life. All my life,” she cried, “I have longed to tuck a baby in, and here is a baby that needs tucking. I shall tuck her!”
Elsie was four. No one apparently had ever tucked Elsie — not in the beautiful, intimate, mother-way that Ellen Hunter meant. The matron of a big orphanage cannot very well be intimate with her motherless brood. Just putting to bed is all that can be managed, and just putting to bed is not tucking.
A tiny, tiny waif Elsie had been when she was brought to the great House of Little Waifs. Some one had discovered her, deserted to all appearances, in a lodging-house, and had notified the proper authorities for disposing of baby waifs. The proper authorities had brought her to this busy, kind-eyed matron who talked to Ellen Hunter.
“I must have her — give her to me!” Ellen said.
“You have thought twice?” the matron persisted. She knew Ellen Hunter's old and firm beliefs, and she did not know little Elsie's parentage. The matron added two and substracted two and got nowhere. Caution made her persistent.
“I've thought a hundred times! I want her to-day — before tucking-in time.”
“Because there's the little Perkins girl — we know all about her people. Honest respectable people. She's four, same as Elsie is —”
“When can I take Elsie — now? She's out there in the playground singing a little raggedy doll to sleep. And no one ever sang to her — oh, I know what you think and all my friends think. You think I am going against my principles — you think some day I may be sorry, because some day Elsie may crop out! Perhaps her parents were bad, you say — how do you know they deserted her? Can you prove they did?”
“She seemed pretty deserted there in that lodging-house room, alone,” the matron said mildly.
“‘Seemed’ — that's it! You don't know. Can one of the helpers get Elsie's little things? Or I'll take her without — I'll buy her new little clothes.”
To buy a little dress, a little petticoat, and little shoes! Ellen Hunter was thirty-nine years old, and had never bought anything little. How many — how many times she had envied tired mother-shoppers because the things they hesitated over at the counters were little things. What did tiredness matter when those women could go home and tuck little sons, little daughters, into bed?
Out in the big, bare playground Ellen found Elsie. Her raggedy doll was asleep.
“Come, dear,” Ellen said, holding out her hand. “Will you come and be my little girl?”
Elsie gathered her sleeping doll to her breast and rose to her feet. She was not sure yet that this wonderful offer would mean lasting bliss.
“Forever'n'ever?” she demanded.
“Forever'n'ever. Come,” Ellen Hunter said. They went away together — the waif, the raggedy doll, the woman whom the Lord had created with a mother's heart. The streets they traversed, hand in hand, were not streets, but shining ways. They walked them, it seemed to Ellen Hunter, on tip-toe, holily, as one should walk on holy ways.
“You goin' to wock me?” Elsie asked suddenly, stopping in the shining street. “I'll show you how.” She had so often wocked her raggedy baby. Ellen, gazing downward into the grave little face, marvelled that a little waif could show her how.
“Rock you, dear? Oh, Elsie, wait! Let me learn the way — don't show me.”
It was five o'clock. What time did mothers rock little children? Six — surely six would not be too soon? Ellen caught the little hand tighter and began to hurry. There was much to be done before six o'clock. There must be a new little nightgown. Only new things would do for this new sweet ceremony.
The shops closed at six; there was time. Before one of the counters Ellen Hunter stood at last, a buyer of little things. In that first moment of real proprietorship she found herself putting on motherhood with amazing ease, like the donning of a familiar garment. It fitted!
“I want a nightgown for a four-year-old — two little nightgowns,” Ellen said, smiling into the face of the shop assistant. The small hand in hers tugged eagerly.
“I on'y wear jus' one ni'gown,” Elsie protested.
“One?” asked the girl, laughing.
“Two,” Ellen said. “This is a special occasion.”
There was still supper to plan; it was a quarter past five as they left the shop.
“Elsie, what do you eat for supper? Tell me, dear.”
Elsie considered uninterestedly. Suppers had always been the same — events to end days with, and nothing else. Of course, when you were hungry, you were glad there were them.
“What do you eat, dear?”
“Oh, things. Out o' bowls.”
“But not to-night — not things out of bowls!” cried Ellen. “To-night we must have plates and little dishes to eat from, and cups with gilt handles! You shall have your milk in the very same gilt cup I used to have mine in on special occasions. You'll love it, won't you, Little?” Already she had her pet name for Elsie.
Elsie was honest.
“I do know's I'd love to have nothing but milk,” she demurred. Ellen laughed in delight. How funny Littles were! A vista of funny little speeches and ways opened enchantingly before her.
At half-past six the preparations were all made. It had taken that extra half hour. Elsie in one of the new little nightgowns — it had required tact to avoid the use of both — was ready to be rocked. Ellen Hunter's face as she lifted the soft and warm little body to her knees was full of a beautiful radiance. The pictured Madonna on the wall looked down in gentle sisterhood.
The happy nights went by. Ellen counted by nights. If she lay awake now sometimes, as in old days, it was a wonderful lying awake, with a sleeping child beside her. She had not known a sleeping child could be so sweet.
They were not all days of simple careless joy. Elsie was a wilful little creature, it transpired, but wilfulness made for character if tempered by love. There were no alarms in wilfulness. The faint misgivings that Ellen occasionally felt at first, in spite of herself, gradually dwindled and died — Ellen thought they died. She settled into a quiet routine of happiness. Elsie's childish faults and mischiefs only made the sweet task of mothering her more sweet. Did one want a perfect little child?
Then in the third year came the sin that Elsie sinned. It came so suddenly out of the clear sky of Ellen's rejuvenated life that she was altogether unprepared. It brought to life all the nearly dead misgivings. All her old theories thronged back into her mind; she seemed to see them written black before her eyes — those theories she had believed in all her life. Certain books of theories on her shelves taunted her.
“I won't read them!” she cried hotly, turning her eyes away. “I don't believe them! They are only words, written words!”
Sins of the fathers — sins of the fathers — Elsie's sin — the soul of Ellen Hunter persisted in its dreads.
The child was rolling on the grass with her beloved playmate, an awkward puppy Ellen had bought for her. Shrieks of uproarious glee drifted houseward. Ellen could see the tangle of little legs and the bronze of Elsie's curls. Was she to go down there and spoil it all — spoil it all? “Go!” Duty said. And Ellen gathered up her courage and went.
The legs ceased waving and untangled. Elsie sat up.
The puppy, suddenly deserted in his romping, regarded the intruder with elfish displeasure.
“Elsie” — the tone was very gentle — “I want to know about my watch; it's gone from the little tilted-up holder on my dressing-table. You haven't taken it, have you, Elsie?” Oh, an infinitely gentle tone.
“Elsie darling, are you sure?”
“No — I mean yes.” Elsie's eyes were on the funny puppy at his ridiculous antics; she did not once raise them. Ellen Hunter felt suddenly bereft of all her beautiful new youth; she felt stiff with age. But tenderness caught at her heart and pushed her on to one more plea. She held out her arms.
“Elsie, listen — come here, Elsie, you didn't — didn't borrow it, did you, dear? To play clock with — don't you know I lent it to you one day to play it was a clock? Did you borrow it, Elsie?” (Oh, Elsie, Elsie, say you borrowed it, dear.)
“No,” Elsie said. She did not look up. The awkward puppy played on.
Ellen Hunter's throat tightened. She opened her closed hand.
“Because,” she said thickly, “because I found this in your drawer, Elsie. Hidden under your clothes.”
It was the watch, a guilty, tell-tale thing in the hollow of her hand. The crystal was broken, the delicate graven case badly dented. But Ellen Hunter was thinking of her broken faith and the sad little dent in Elsie.
“I didn't take it,” mumbled the child persistently. Ellen could get no further than that. Oh, double sin of the fathers — to steal and to lie! Oh, double heartbreak of this sad mother!
For three endless days Ellen Hunter threshed out with herself the question of what to do — there must be something best to do. She must find the best and wisest thing. Not for a moment did she flinch from the task before her; not for a moment did her love and tenderness fail her. She must love Elsie more — oh, more! But she must take time and make no mistake.
A curious constraint evinced itself between foster mother and little child during those three slow days. Only the puppy was unembarrassed and perfectly happy. With him Elsie played as usual, but to Ellen it seemed a bleak little play. Her mind went back to the great bare house of bleak little children. A thought came with the memory. The matron of bleak little children — could she find help there? There must be many sins of fathers to combat there, and the woman had looked earnest and kind.
In the late afternoon of the third day she could bear it no longer. Leaving Elsie and the puppy with the maid, Ellen walked the mile and a quarter to town, and through the pleasant, shady streets, to the Orphans' Home. The matron sat at her window, keeping order in the bleak place of play. It was all as it had been three years before, save that no little Elsie sat under the solitary tree singing to her doll.
The matron met Ellen Hunter with cordial welcome.
“I am glad you came! — yes, of course I remember you! How's Elsie? If I could ever've got away long enough to hunt you up I'd have been to see you long before this. Sit in this chair — it's easier. Yes, I wanted to find you and tell you something. Do you want to hear something real encouraging? You'll be pleased — so was I. I've got my children's interests at heart! And I always did think little Elsie was above the ordinary. You're sure you don't feel any draught from the window? I'll put it down to keep out the noise. As I was going to say —”
Oh, was she ever going to say!
“I always did feel that little Elsie was good-blooded, though I hadn't a single living thing to go by but feeling.”
Ellen Hunter sat rigid in her chair, holding her very soul's breath to hear.
“And there her people never deserted her after all! They couldn't help being killed in an accident — car ran down an awful hill — though I do say they ought to have had identifying cards or something on them. People always should have an address in their pocket — I've got one on me, sitting here in this chair! It seems there wasn't only the young father and mother — no relatives or anything, unless you call Elsie a relative, and she couldn't have identified them. So nobody knew till just lately, when we got hold of a clue. We're used to following up clues, and we always do when we can. I know you'd be relieved to know Elsie was well born.”
Ellen tried to nod, to express pleasure, but superficial things were beyond her power. “Go on,” was all she managed.
“Why — why, I think that's everything we found out except that they were nice educated young people, and both played some kind of instruments in a big city orchestra, and went and came every day. The landlady thought they moved out here to get better air for the baby — Elsie was sickly at first. She said — the landlady said — they'd only been two days. Got a girl to look after the baby while they were away. Funny that landlady took three years to get her tongue unloosed. I was going to look you up. I knew you'd be pleased.”
Ellen Hunter never knew how much longer the friendly matron-voice ran on and on. There was always a blank in her mind between the divulging of Elsie's parentage and getting back to Elsie and the puppy. She was never sure that she did not run back. Memory began again, keen and clear, at sight of Elsie's little dear face.
Elsie was crying! She came running in a little whirlwind of woe to meet Ellen at the gate. Her small racked mind was at last made up to “tell” about her beloved playmate. She must! — she must!
“I never, never, never took it outer the case! It was Puppie joggled it out an' run away with it. I found him tryin' to eat it up — it was all spoiled. I hid it so's you wouldn't know till I'd — till I'd saved 'nough o' pennies to buy you a-n-n-nother one!”
She was sobbing into the folds of Ellen's skirt.
“I love Puppie — I do, I do! I'd rather you'd punished me, only — only I love you the moster. I couldn't bear to have you think I took it outer the case. I never, never, never did!”
What Ellen remembered after that was the softness of Elsie's little cheek against her own, and the long, long rock they had in the sweet twilight out-of-doors. Stars overhead and faint night-voices in their ears — stillness and peace and content. Puppie crept up, too, and made another baby at Ellen's feet.
“Sleepy-dear, sleepy-dear, husher-bye!” she crooned softly to the music in her happy heart.