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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHis Family - Chapter 9
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His Family - Chapter 9 Post by :toucan Category :Long Stories Author :Ernest Poole Date :May 2012 Read :3691

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His Family - Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX

DEBORAH needed rest, he thought, for the bright attractive face of his daughter was looking rather pale of late, and the birthmark on her forehead showed a faint thin line of red. One night at dinner, watching her, he wondered what was on her mind. She had come in late, and though several times she had made an effort to keep up the conversation, her cheeks were almost colorless and more than once in her deepset eyes came a flash of pain that startled him.

"Look here. What's the matter with you?" he asked. Deborah looked up quickly.

"I'd rather not talk about it, dad--"

"Very well," he answered. And with a slight hesitation, "But I think I know the trouble," he said. "And perhaps some other time--when you do feel like talking--" He stopped, for on her wide sensitive lips he saw a twitch of amusement.

"What do you think is the trouble?" she asked. And Roger looked at her squarely.

"Loneliness," he answered.

"Why?" she asked him.

"Well, there's Edith's baby--and Laura getting married--"

"I see--and so I'm lonely for a family of my own. But you're forgetting my school," she said.

"Yes, yes, I know," he retorted. "But that's not at all the same. Interesting work, no doubt, but--well, it isn't personal."

"Oh, isn't it?" she answered, and she drew a quivering breath. Rising from the table she went into the living room, and there a few moments later he found her walking up and down. "I think I will tell you now," she said. "I'm afraid of being alone to-night, of keeping this matter to myself." He looked at her apprehensively.

"Very well, my dear," he said.

"This is the trouble," she began. "Down in my school we've a family of about three thousand children. A few I get to know so well I try to follow them when they leave. And one of these, an Italian boy--his name is Joe Bolini--was one of the best I ever had, and one of the most appealing. But Joe took to drinking and got in with a gang of boys who blackmailed small shopkeepers. He used to come to me at times in occasional moods of repentance. He was a splendid physical type and he'd been a leader in our athletics, so I took him back into the school to manage our teams in basket-ball. He left the gang and stopped drinking, and we had long talks together about his great ambition. He wanted to enter the Fire Department as soon as he was twenty-one. And I promised to use my influence." She stopped, still frowning slightly.

"What happened?" Roger asked her.

"His girl took up with another man, and Joe has hot Italian blood. He got drunk one night and--shot them both." There was another silence. "I did what I could," she said harshly, "but he had a bad record behind him, and the young assistant district attorney had his own record to think of, too. So Joe got a death sentence. We appealed the case but it did no good. He was sent up the river and is in the death house now--and he sent for me to come to-day. His letter hinted he was scared, he wrote that his priest was no good to him. So I went up this afternoon. Joe goes to the chair to-morrow at six."

Deborah went to the sofa and sat down inertly. Roger remained motionless, and a dull chill crept over him.

"So you see my work is personal," he heard her mutter presently. All at once she seemed so far away, such a stranger to him in this life of hers.

"By George, it's horrible!" he said. "I'm sorry you went to see the boy!"

"I'm glad," was his daughter's quick retort. "I've been getting much too sure of myself--of my school, I mean, and what it can do. I needed this to bring me back to the kind of world we live in!"

"What do you mean?" he roughly asked.

"I mean there are schools and prisons! And gallows and electric chairs! And I'm for schools! They've tried their jails and gallows for whole black hideous centuries! What good have they done? If they'd given Joe back to the school and me, I'd have had him a fireman in a year! I know, because I studied him hard! He'd have _grown fighting fires, he would have _saved lives!"

Again she stopped, with a catch of her breath. In suspense he watched her angry struggle to regain control of herself. She sat bolt upright, rigid; her birthmark showed a fiery red. In a few moments he saw her relax.

"But of course," she added wearily, "it's much more complex than that. A school is nothing nowadays--just by itself alone, I mean--it's only a part of a city's life--which for most tenement children is either very dull and hard, or cheap and false and overexciting. And behind all that lie the reasons for that. And there are so many reasons." She stared straight past her father as though at something far away. Then she seemed to recall herself: "But I'm talking too much of my family."

Roger carefully lit a cigar:

"I don't think you are, my dear. I'd like to hear more about it." She smiled:

"To keep my mind off Joe, you mean."

"And mine, too," he answered.

They had a long talk that evening about her hope of making her school what Roger visaged confusedly as a kind of mammoth home, the center of a neighborhood, of one prodigious family. At times when the clock on the mantle struck the hour loud and clear, there would fall a sudden silence, as both thought of what was to happen at dawn. But quickly Roger would question again and Deborah would talk steadily on. It was after midnight when she stopped.

"You've been good to me to-night, dearie," she said. "Let's go to bed now, shall we?"

"Very well," he answered. He looked at his daughter anxiously. She no longer seemed to him mature. He could feel what heavy discouragements, what problems she was facing in the dark mysterious tenement world which she had chosen to make her own. And compared to these she seemed a mere girl, a child groping its way, just making a start. And so he added wistfully, "I wish I could be of more help to you." She looked up at him for a moment.

"Do you know why you are such a help?" she said. "It's because you have never grown old--because you've never allowed yourself to grow absolutely certain about anything in life." A smile half sad and half perplexed came on her father's heavy face.

"You consider that a strong point?" he asked.

"I do," she replied, "compared to being a bundle of creeds and prejudices."

"Oh, I've got prejudices enough."

"Yes," she said. "And so have I. But we're not even sure of _them_, these days."

"The world has a habit of crowding in," her father muttered vaguely.

* * * * *

Roger did not sleep that night. He could not keep his thoughts away from what was going to happen at dawn. Yes, the city was crowding in upon this quiet house of his. Dimly he could recollect, in the genial years of long ago, just glancing casually now and then at some small and unobtrusive notice in his evening paper: "Execution at Sing Sing." It had been so remote to him. But here it was smashing into his house, through the life his own daughter was leading day and night among the poor! Each time he thought of that lad in a cell, again a chill crept over him! But savagely he shook it off, and by a strong effort of his will he turned his thoughts to the things she had told him about her school. Yes, in her main idea she was right. He had no use for wild reforms, but here was something solid, a good education for every child. More than once, while she had talked, something very deep in Roger had leaped up in swift response.

For Deborah, too, was a part of himself. He, too, had had his feeling for humanity in the large. For years he had run a boys' club at a little mission school in which his wife had been interested, and on Christmas Eve he had formed the habit of gathering up a dozen small urchins right off the street and taking them 'round and fitting them out with good warm winter clothing, after which he had gone home to help Judith trim the Christmas tree and fill their children's stockings. And later, when she had gone to bed, invariably he had taken "The Christmas Carol" from its shelf and had settled down with a glow of almost luxurious brotherhood. There was sentiment in Roger Gale, and as he read of "Tiny Tim" his deepset eyes would glisten with tears.

And now here was Deborah fulfilling a part of him in herself. "You will live on in our children's lives." But this was going much too far! She was letting herself be swallowed up completely by this work of hers! It was all very well for the past ten years, but she was getting on in age! High time to marry and settle down!

Again angrily he shook off the thought of that boy Joe alone in a cell, eyes fixed in animal terror upon the steel door which would open so soon.

The day was slowly breaking. It was the early part of June. How fresh and lovely it must be up there in the big mountains with Edith's happy little lads. Here it was raw and garish, weird. Some sparrows began quarreling just outside his window. Roger rose and walked the room. Restlessly he went into the hall. The old house appeared so strange in this light--as though stripped bare--there was something gone. Softly he came to Deborah's door. It was open wide, for the night had been warm, and she lay awake upon her bed with her gaze fixed on the ceiling. She turned her head and saw him there. He came in and sat down by her window. For a long time neither made a sound. Then the great clock on the distant tower, which had been silent through the night, resumed its deep and measured boom. It struck six times. There was silence again. More and more taut grew his muscles, and suddenly it felt to him as though Deborah's fierce agony were pounding into his very soul. The slow, slow minutes throbbed away. At last he rose and left her. There was a cold sweat on his brow.

"I'll go down and make her some coffee," he thought.

Down in the kitchen it was a relief to bang about hunting for the utensils. On picnics up in the mountains his coffee had been famous. He made some now and boiled some eggs, and they breakfasted in Deborah's room. She seemed almost herself again. Later, while he was dressing, he saw her in the doorway. She was looking at her father with bright and grateful, affectionate eyes.

"Will you come to school with me to-day? I'd like you to see it," Deborah said.

"Very well," he answered gruffly.

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