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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 24
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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 24 Post by :bookcave Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :2273

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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 24

Chapter XXIV

Charlotte, before her sister was married, had been in the habit of taking long walks with her. Now she went alone.

The elder women of the family never walked when they could avoid doing so. Mrs. Carroll was, in consequence, putting on a soft roundness of flesh like a baby, and was daily becoming a creature of more curves and dimples. Anna did not gain flesh, but she moved more languidly, and her languor of movement was at curious odds with the subdued eagerness of her eyes. In these days Anna Carroll was not well; her nerves were giving way. She slept little and ate little.

"You are losing your appetite, Anna, dear," Mrs. Carroll said once at the dinner-table.

"A fortunate thing, perhaps," retorted Anna, with her little, veiled sting of manner, and at that Carroll rose abruptly and left the table.

"What is the matter, Arthur?" his wife called after him. "I don't see what ails Arthur lately," she said, with a soft tone of complaint, when the door had closed behind him and he had made no response.

Charlotte adored her Aunt Anna, and seldom took any exception to anything which she said or did, but then she turned upon her.

"Poor papa is hurt by what Aunt Anna said," she declared, severely, "and I don't wonder. Here he cannot afford to buy as much to eat as he would like, and hasn't enough to pay the butcher, and Aunt Anna says things like that. I don't wonder he is hurt. It is cruel." Tears flashed into Charlotte's eyes. She looked accusingly at her aunt, who laughed.

"I think as much of your father as you do," said she, "and I know him better. Don't fret, honey."

"Your aunt is ill, dear," said Mrs. Carroll, who always veered to the side of the attacked party, and who, moreover, seldom grasped sarcasm, "and besides, sweetheart," she added, "I don't see what she said that could have hurt Arthur's feelings." Just then Carroll passed the window towards the stable. "There," she cried, triumphantly, "he is just going around to order the carriage. He had finished his luncheon. He never did care much for that kind of pudding. You are making too much of it, Charlotte, dear."

"No, I am not," said Charlotte, firmly. "Papa did not like the way Anna spoke; he was hurt. It was cruel." She got up and left the table also, and a soft sob was heard as she closed the dining-room door behind her.

"That dear child is so sensitive and nervous, and she thinks so much of Arthur," Mrs. Carroll said. "Give me the pudding sauce, Marie."

Eddy, who had been busily eating his pudding, looked up from his empty plate. "Aunt Anna did mean it was fortunate she had lost her appetite, because there wasn't enough to eat," he declared, in his sweet treble. "You ain't very sharp, Amy. She did mean that, and that was the reason papa went out. But it was true, too. There isn't enough to eat. I haven't had near enough pudding, and it is all gone. The dish is scraped. There is none left for Marie and Martin, either."

"I want no pudding," said Marie, unexpectedly, from behind Mrs. Carroll's chair. She spoke with a certain sullenness, and her eyes were red. She had a large, worn place in the sleeve of her white shirt-waist, and she was given to lifting her arm and surveying it with an air of covert injury and indignation.

"The omelet is all gone, too," said Eddy. "Marie and Martin haven't got anything to eat."

"Oh, hush, dear!" said Mrs. Carroll. "Marie can cook another omelet." The Hungarian girl opened her mouth as if to speak, then she shut it again. An indescribable expression was on her pretty, peasant face, the face of a down-trodden race, who yet retained in spirit a spark of rebellion and resentment. Marie, in her ragged blouse, with her countenance of inscrutable silence, standing behind her mistress's chair, surveying the denuded table, was the embodiment of a folk-lore song. She had been in America only a year and a half, and the Lord only knew what she had expected in that land of promise, and what bright visions had been dispelled, and how roughly she had been forced back upon her old point of view of the world. The girl was actually hungry. She had no money; her clothes were worn. Her naive coquetry of expression had quite faded from her face. Her cheek-bones showed high, her mouth was wide and set, her eyes fixed with a sort of stolid and despairing acquiescence. The salient points of the Slav were to the surface, the little wings of her hope and youth folded away. She had fallen in love, moreover, and been prevented from attending a wedding-feast where she would have met him that day, on account of a lack of money for a new waist, and car fare. She knew another girl who was gay in a new gown, and at whom the desired one had often looked with wavering eyes. Her heart was broken as she stood there. She was one of the weariest of the wheels within wheels of Arthur Carroll's miserable system of life.

"I don't believe there are any more eggs to make an omelet," said Eddy.

"The grocer still trusts us," said Mrs. Carroll; "besides, he has been paid. Eddy, dear, you must not speak so to your aunt. Run out, if you have finished your luncheon, and ask your father when he is going to drive."

Carroll had not gone, as usual, to the City that day.

Mrs. Carroll and Anna rose from the table and went into the den on the left of the hall.

"You must not mind the children speaking so, Anna, dear," Mrs. Carroll said. "They would fly at me just the same if they thought I had said anything to hurt Arthur."

"I don't mind, Amy," Anna replied, dully. She threw herself upon the divan with its Oriental rug, lying flat on her back, with her hands under her head and her eyes fixed upon a golden maple bough which waved past the window opposite. She looked very ill. She was quite pale, and her eyes had a strange, earnest depth in dark hollows.

Mrs. Carroll looked a little more serious than was her wont as she sat in the willow rocker and swayed slowly back and forth. "I suppose," she said, after a pause, "that it will end in our moving away from Banbridge."

"I suppose so," Anna replied, listlessly.

"You don't mind going, do you, Anna, dear?"

"I mind nothing," Anna Carroll said. "I am past minding."

Mrs. Carroll looked at her with a bewildered sympathy. "Why, Anna, dear, what is the matter?" she said.

"Nothing, Amy."

"You are feeling ill, aren't you?"

"Perhaps so, a little. It is nothing worth talking about."

"Are you troubled about anything, honey?"

Anna did not reply.

"I can't imagine what you have to trouble you, Anna. Everything is as it has been for a long time. When we move away from Banbridge there will be more for a while. I can't see anything to worry about."

"For God's sake, keep your eyes shut, then, Amy, as long as you can," cried Anna, suddenly, with a tone which the other woman had never heard before. She gazed at her sister-in-law a minute, and her expression of childish sweetness and contentment changed. Tears came in her eyes, her mouth quivered.

"I don't know what you mean, Anna," she said, pitifully, like a puzzled child.

Anna sprang up from the divan and went over to her and kissed her and laughed. "I mean nothing, dear," she said. "There is no more to worry about now than there has been all along. People get on somehow. We are in the world, and we have our right here, and if we knock over a few people to keep our footholds, I don't know that we are to blame. It is nothing, Amy. I have felt wretched for a few days, and it has affected my spirits. Don't mind anything I have said. We shall leave Banbridge before long, and, as you say, we shall get on better."

Mrs. Carroll gave two or three little whimpers on her sister-in-law's shoulder, then she smiled up at her. "I guess it is because you don't feel well that you are looking on the dark side of things so," said she. "You will feel better to go out and have a drive."

"Perhaps I shall," replied Anna.

"We shall go for a long drive. There will be plenty of time, it is so early. How lovely it would be if we had our automobile, wouldn't it, Anna? Then we could go any distance. Wouldn't it be lovely?"

"Very," replied Anna.

Then Eddy burst into the room. "Say, Amy," he cried, "there's a great circus out in the stable. Papa and Martin are having a scrap."

"Eddy, dear," cried Mrs. Carroll, "you must not say scrap."

"A shindy, then. What difference does it make? Martin he won't harness, because he hasn't been paid. He just sits on a chair in the door and whittles a stick, and don't say anything, and he won't harness."

"We have simply got to have an automobile," said Mrs. Carroll.

"How do you know it is because he hasn't been paid, Eddy?" asked Anna.

"Because he said so; before he wouldn't say anything, and began whittling. Papa stands there talking to him, but it don't make any difference."

"With an automobile it wouldn't make any difference," said Mrs. Carroll. "An automobile doesn't have to be harnessed. I don't see why Arthur doesn't get one."

Anna Carroll sat down on the nearest chair and laughed hysterically.

Mrs. Carroll stared at her. "What are you laughing at, Anna?" said she, with a little tone of injury. "I don't see anything very funny. It is a lovely day, and I wanted to go to drive, and it would do you good. I don't see why people act so because they are not paid. I didn't think it of Martin."

"I'll go out and see if he has stirred yet," cried Eddy, and was off, with a countenance expressive of the keenest enjoyment of the situation.

Out in the stable, beside the great door through which was a view of the early autumn landscape--a cluster of golden trailing elms, with one rosy maple on a green lawn intersected by the broad sweep of drive--sat the man in a chair, and whittled with a face as imperturbable as fate. Carroll stood beside him, talking in a low tone. He was quite pale. Suddenly, just as the boy arrived, the man spoke.

"Why in thunder, sir," said he, with a certain respect in spite of the insolence of the words--"why in thunder don't you haul in, shut up shop, sell out, pay your debts, and go it small?"

"Perhaps I will," Carroll replied, in a tone of rage. His face flushed, he raised his right arm as if with an impulse to strike the other man, then he let it drop.

"Sell the horses, papa?" cried Eddy, at his elbow, with a tone of dismay.

Carroll turned and saw the boy. "Go into the house; this is nothing that concerns you," he said, sternly.

"Are the horses paid for, papa?" asked Eddy.

"I believe they ain't," said the man in the chair, with a curious ruminating impudence. Carroll towered over him with an expression of ignoble majesty. But Eddy had made a dart into a stall, and the tramp of iron hoofs was suddenly heard.

"I can harness as well as he can," a small voice cried.

Then Martin rose. "I'll harness," he said, sullenly. "You'll get hurt"--to the boy. "She don't like children round her." He took hold of the boy's small shoulders and pushed him away from the restive horse, and grasped the bridle. Carroll strode out of the stable.

"Say," said Eddy, to the man.

"Well, what? I've got to have my pay. I've worked here long enough for nothin'."

"When I'm a man I'll pay you," said Eddy, with dignity and severity. "You must not speak to papa that way again, Martin."

Martin looked from the tall horse to the small boy, and began to laugh.

"I'll pay you with interest," repeated the boy, and the man laughed again.

"Much obleeged," said he.

"I don't see, now, why you need to worry just because papa hasn't paid you," said Eddy, and walked out of the stable with a gait exactly like his father.

The man threw the harness over the horse and whistled.

"He's harnessing," Eddy proclaimed when he went in.

His mother was pinning on her veil before the mirror over the hall settle. Anna was just coming down-stairs in a long, red coat, with a black feather curling against her black hair under her hat.

"Where is Charlotte?" asked Mrs. Carroll.

"She has gone off to walk," said Eddy.

"Well," said Mrs. Carroll, "you must go after her and walk with her, Eddy."

"I don't want to, Amy," said Eddy. "I want to go to drive."

Then Carroll came down-stairs and repeated his wife's orders. "Yes, Eddy, you must go to walk with your sister. I don't wish her to go alone," said he peremptorily. He still looked pale; he had grown thin during the last month.

"I don't see why Charlotte don't get married, too, and have her husband to go with her," said Eddy, as he went out of the door. "Tagging round after a girl all the time! It ain't fair."

"Eddy!" called Carroll, in a stern voice; but the boy had suddenly accelerated his pace with his last words, and was a flying streak at the end of the drive.

"Where 'm I goin' to find her?" he complained to himself. He hung about a little until he saw the carriage emerge from the grounds and turn in the other direction, then he went straight down to the main street. Just as he turned the corner he met a small woman, carefully dressed and frizzed, who stopped him.

"Is your mother at home, little boy?" she asked, in a nervous voice. There were red spots on her thin cheeks; she was manifestly trembling.

The boy eyed her with a supercilious scorn and pity. He characterized her in his own mind of extreme youth and brutal truth as an ugly old woman, and yet he noted the trembling and felt like reassuring her. He took off his little cap. "No, ma'am," said he. "Amy has gone to drive."

"I wanted to see your mother," said the woman, wonderingly.

"Amy is my mother," replied the boy.

"Oh!" said the woman.

"They have all gone," said Eddy.

"Then I shall have to call another time," said the woman, with a mixture of ingratiation and despair.

The boy eyed her sharply. "Say," he said, "are you the dressmaker that made my sister Ina's clothes for her to be married?"

"Yes, I be," replied Madame Griggs.

"Then," said Eddy, "I can tell you one thing, there isn't any use for you to go to my house now to get any money. I suppose you haven't been paid."

"No, I haven't," said Madame Griggs. Then she loosened the flood-gates of her grievance upon the boy. "No, I haven't been paid," said she, "and I've worked like a dog, and I'm owing for the things I bought in New York, and I'm owing my girls, and if I don't get paid before long, I'm ruined, and that's all there is to it. I 'ain't been paid, and it's a month since your sister was married, and they'll send out to collect the bills from the stores, if I don't pay them. It's a cruel thing, and I don't care if I do say it." The woman was flouncing along the street beside the boy, and she spoke in a loud, shrill voice. "It's a cruel thing," she repeated. "If I couldn't pay for my wedding fix I'd never get married, before I'd go and cheat a poor dress-maker. She'd ought to be ashamed of herself, and so had all your folks. I don't care if I do say it. They are nuthin' but a pack of swindlers, that's what they be."

Suddenly the boy danced in front of the furious little woman, and stood there, barring her progress. "They ain't!" said he.

"They be."

"They ain't! You can't pay folks if you 'ain't got any money."

"You needn't have the things, then," sniffed Madame Griggs.

"My sister had to have the things to get married, didn't she? A girl can't get married without the clothes."

"Let her pay for 'em, then."

"I'll tell you what to do!" cried Eddy, looking at her with a sudden inspiration. "You are in debt, ain't you?"

"Yes, I be," replied Madame Griggs, hopping nervously along by the boy's side, poor little dressmaker, aping French gentility, holding her skirts high, with a disclosure of a papery silk petticoat and a meagre ankle. Even in her distress she felt of her frizzes to see if they were in order after a breeze had struck her in the sharp, eager face. "Yes, I be."

"Well," said the boy, delightedly, "I can tell you just what to do, you know."

"What, I'd like to know?" Madame Griggs said, in a snapping tone.

"Move away from Banbridge," said the boy.

"What for, I'd like to know?"

"Why, then, don't you see," explained Eddy Carroll, "you would get away from the folks that you owe, and other folks that you didn't owe would trust you for things. You'd get along fine. That's the way we always do."

"Well, I never!" said Madame Griggs. Then she turned on him with sudden fury. "So that's what your folks are goin' to do, be they?" said she. "Go off and leave me without payin' my bill! That's the dodge, is it?"

Eddy was immediately on the alert. He was young and innocent, but he had a certain sharpness. He was quite well aware that a knowledge on the part of the creditors of his family's flittings was not desirable. "I 'ain't heard them say a word about moving away from Banbridge," declared he. "What you getting so mad about, Missis?"

"I guess I've got some reason to be mad, if that's your folks' game. The way I've worked, slavin' all them hot days and nights on your sister's wedding fix. I guess--"

"We ain't going to move away from Banbridge as long as we live, for all I know," said Eddy, looking at the bundle of feminine nerves beside him with a mixture of terror and scorn. "You don't need to holler so, Missis."

"I don't care how loud I holler, I can tell you that."

"We ain't going to move; and if we did, I don't see why you couldn't. I was just telling you what you could do, if you owed folks and didn't have any money to pay 'em, and you turn on a feller that way. I'm going to tell my sister and mother, and they won't have you make any more dresses for 'em." With that Eddy Carroll made a dart into Anderson's grocery store, which he had reached by that time. The dressmaker remained standing on the sidewalk, staring after him. She looked breathless; red spots were on her thin cheeks.

Eddy went straight through the store to the office. The door stood open, and the little place was empty except for the cat, which cast a lazy glance at him from under a half-closed lid, stretched, displaying his claws, and began to purr loudly. Eddy went over to the cat and took him up in his arms and carried him out into the main store, where William Price stood behind the counter. He was alone in the store.

"Say," said Eddy, "where's Mr. Anderson?"

"He's gone out," replied the clerk, with a kind look at the boy. He had lost one of his own years ago, and Eddy, in spite of his innocent superciliousness, appealed to him.

"Where?" asked Eddy. The cat wriggled in his arms and jumped down. Then he rolled over ingratiatingly at his feet. Eddy stooped down and rubbed the shining, furry stomach.

"He took the net he catches butterflies with," replied the old clerk, "and I guess he's gone to walk in the fields somewhere."

"I should think it was pretty late for butterflies," said Eddy. He straightened himself and looked very hard at the glass jar of molasses-balls on the shelf behind the clerk.

"There might be a stray one," said William Price. "It's a warm day."

"Shucks!" said Eddy. "Say, how much are those a pound?"

The clerk glanced around at the jar of molasses-balls. "Twenty-five cents," replied he.

"Guess I'll take a pound," said Eddy. "I 'ain't got any money with me, but I'll pay you the next time I come in."

The old clerk's common face turned suddenly grave, and acquired thereby a certain distinction. He turned about, took off the cover of the glass jar, and gathered up a handful of the molasses-balls and put them in a little paper bag. Then he came forth from behind the counter and approached the boy. He thrust the paper bag into a little grasping hand, then he took hold of the small shoulders and looked down at him steadily. The blue eyes in the ordinary face of an ordinary man, unfitted for any work in life except that of an underling, were full of affection and reproof. Eddy looked into them, then he hitched uneasily.

"What you doing so for?" said he; then he looked into the eyes again and was still.

"It's jest this," said William Price. "Here's a little bag of them molasses-balls, I'll give 'em to ye; but don't you never, as long as you live, buy anything you 'ain't either got the money to pay for in your fist, ready, or know jest where it's comin' from. It's stealin', and it's the wust kind of stealin', 'cause it ain't out an' out. I had a boy once about your size."

"Where's he now?" asked Eddy, in a half-resentful, half-wondering fashion.

"He's dead; died years ago of scarlet-fever, and I'd a good deal rather have it so, much as I thought of him--as much as your father thinks of you--than to have him grow up and steal and cheat folks."

"Didn't he ever take anything that didn't belong to him?" asked Eddy.

"Never. I guess he didn't. John wasn't that kind of a boy. I'd have trusted him with anythin'."

"Then he must have gone to heaven, I suppose," said Eddy. He looked soberly into the old clerk's eyes. "Thank you for the molasses-balls," he said. "I meant to pay for 'em, but I don't know just when I'd have the money, so I guess it's better for you to give them to me. Mr. Anderson won't mind, will he?"

"No, he won't, for I shall put fives cents into the cash-drawer for them," replied the old clerk, with dignity.

"I wouldn't want to have you take anything that Mr. Anderson wouldn't like," said Eddy.

"I shouldn't," replied the old clerk, going back to his place behind the counter, as a woman entered the store.

Eddy looked back as he went out, with a very sweet expression. "The first five-cent piece I get I'll pay you," he said. He had popped a molasses-ball into his mouth, and his utterance was somewhat impeded. "I thank you very much, indeed," he said, "and I'm sorry your boy died."

"Have you just lost a boy?" asked the woman at the counter.

"Twenty years ago," replied the clerk.

"Land!" said the woman. She looked at him, then she turned and looked after Eddy, who was visible on the sidewalk talking with Madame Griggs, and her face showed her mind. Madame Griggs had waited on the sidewalk until Eddy came out of the store. Now she seized him by the arm, which he promptly jerked away from her.

"When will your folks be home? That's what I want to know!" said she, sharply.

"They'll be home to-night, I guess," replied Eddy.

"Then I'll be up after supper," said Madame Griggs.

"All right," said Eddy.

"You tell 'em I'm comin'. I've got to see your ma and your pa."

"Yes, ma'am," replied Eddy. He raised his little cap as the dressmaker flirted away, then he started on a run down the street, sucking a molasses-ball, which is a staying sweet, and soon he left the travelled road and was hastening far afield.

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