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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Portion Of Labor - Chapter 2
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The Portion Of Labor - Chapter 2 Post by :61080 Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :600

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The Portion Of Labor - Chapter 2

Chapter II

The greatest complexity in the world attends the motive-power of any action. Infinite perspectives of mental mirrors reflect the whys of all doing. An adult with long practice in analytic introspection soon becomes bewildered when he strives to evolve the primary and fundamental reasons for his deeds; a child so striving would be lost in unexpected depths; but a child never strives. A child obeys unquestioningly and absolutely its own spiritual impellings without a backward glance at them.

Little Ellen Brewster ran down the road that November night, and did not know then, and never knew afterwards, why she ran. Loving renunciation was surging high in her childish heart, giving an indication of tidal possibilities for the future, and there was also a bitter, angry hurt of slighted dependency and affection. Had she not heard them say, her own mother and father say, that they would be better off and happier with her out of the way, and she their dearest loved and most carefully cherished possession in the whole world? It is a cruel fall for an apple of the eye to the ground, for its law of gravitation is of the soul, and its fall shocks the infinite. Little Ellen felt herself sorely hurt by her fall from such fair heights; she was pierced by the sharp thorns of selfish interests which flourish below all the heavenward windows of life.

Afterwards, when her mother and father tried to make her tell them why she ran away, she could not say; the answer was beyond her own power.

There was no snow on the ground, but the earth was frozen in great ribs after a late thaw. Ellen ran painfully between the ridges which a long line of ice-wagons had made with their heavy wheels earlier in the day. When the spaces between the ridges were too narrow for her little feet, she ran along the crests, and that was precarious. She fell once and bruised one of her delicate knees, then she fell again, and struck the knee on the same place. It hurt her, and she caught her breath with a gasp of pain. She pulled up her little frock and touched her hand to her knee, and felt it wet, then she whimpered on the lonely road, and, curiously enough, there was pity for her mother as well as for herself in her solitary grieving. "Mother would feel pretty bad if she knew how I was hurt, enough to make it bleed," she murmured, between her soft sobs. Ellen did not dare cry loudly, from a certain unvoiced fear which she had of shocking the stillness of the night, and also from a delicate sense of personal dignity, and a dislike of violent manifestations of feeling which had strengthened with her growth in the midst of the turbulent atmosphere of her home. Ellen had the softest childish voice, and she never screamed or shouted when excited. Instead of catching the motion of the wind, she still lay before it, like some slender-stemmed flower. If Ellen had made much outcry with the hurt in her heart and the smart of her knee, she might have been heard, for the locality was thickly settled, though not in the business portion of the little city. The houses, set prosperously in the midst of shaven lawns--for this was a thrifty and emulative place, and democracy held up its head confidently--were built closely along the road, though that was lonely and deserted at that hour. It was the hour between half-past six and half-past seven, when people were lingering at their supper-tables, and had not yet started upon their evening pursuits. The lights shone for the most part from the rear windows of the houses, and there was a vague compound odor of tea and bread and beefsteak in the air. Poor Ellen had not had her supper; the wrangle at home had dismissed it from everybody's mind. She felt more pitiful towards her mother and herself when she smelt the food and reflected upon that. To think of her going away without any supper, all alone in the dark night! There was no moon, and the solemn brilliancy of the stars made her think with a shiver of awe of the Old Testament and the possibility of the Day of Judgment. Suppose it should come, and she all alone out in the night, in the midst of all those worlds and the great White Throne, without her mother? Ellen's grandmother, who was of a stanch orthodox breed, and was, moreover, anxious to counteract any possible detriment as to religious training from contact with the degenerate Louds of Loudville, had established a strict course of Bible study for her granddaughter at a very early age. All celestial phenomena were in consequence transposed into a Biblical key for the child, and she regarded the heavens swarming with golden stars as a Hebrew child of a thousand years ago might have done.

She was glad when she came within the radius of a street light from time to time; they were stationed at wide intervals in that neighborhood. Soon, however, she reached the factories, when all mystery and awe, and vague terrors of what beside herself might be near unrevealed beneath the mighty brooding of the night, were over. She was, as it were, in the mid-current of the conditions of her own life and times, and the material force of it swept away all symbolisms and unstable drift, and left only the bare rocks and shores of existence. Always when the child had been taken by one of her elders past the factories, humming like gigantic hives, with their windows alert with eager eyes of toil, glancing out at her over bench and machine, Ellen had seen her secretly cherished imaginings recede into a night of distance like stars, and she had felt her little footing upon the earth with a shock, and had clung more closely to the leading hand of love. "That's where your poor father works," her grandmother would say. "Maybe you'll have to work there some day," her aunt Eva had said once; and her mother, who had been with her also, had cried out sharply as if she had been stung, "I guess that little delicate thing ain't never goin' to work in a shoe-shop, Eva Loud." And her aunt Eva had laughed, and declared with emphasis that she guessed there was no need to worry yet awhile.

"She never shall, while I live," her mother had cried; and then Eva, coming to her sister's aid against her own suggestion, had declared, with a vehemence which frightened Ellen, that she would burn the shop down herself first.

As for Ellen's father, he never at that time dwelt upon the child's future as much as his wife did, having a masculine sense of the instability of houses of air which prevented him from entering them without a shivering of walls and roof into naught but star-mediums by his downrightness of vision. "Oh, let the child be, can't you, Fanny?" he said, when his wife speculated whether Ellen would be or do this or that when she should be a woman. He resented the conception of the woman which would swallow up, like some metaphysical sorceress, his fair little child. So when he now and then led Ellen past the factories it was never with the slightest surmise as to any connection which she might have with them beyond the present one. "There's the shop where father works," he would tell Ellen, with a tender sense of his own importance in his child's eyes, and he was as proud as Punch when Ellen was able to point with her tiny pink finger at the window where father worked. "That's where father works and earns money to buy nice things for little Ellen," Andrew would repeat, beaming at her with divine foolishness, and Ellen looked at the roaring, vibrating building as she might have looked at the wheels of progress. She realized that her father was very great and smart to work in a place like that, and earn money--so much of it. Ellen often heard her mother remark with pride how much money Andrew earned.

To-night, when Ellen passed in her strange flight, the factories were still, though they were yet blazing with light. The gigantic buildings, after a style of architecture as simple as a child's block house, and adapted to as primitive an end, loomed up beside the road like windowed shells enclosing massive concretenesses of golden light. They looked entirely vacant except for light, for the workmen had all gone home, and there were only the keepers in the buildings. There were three of them, representing three different firms, rival firms, grouped curiously close together, but Lloyd's was much the largest. Andrew and Eva worked in Lloyd's.

She was near the last factory when she met a man hastening along with bent shoulders, of intent, middle-aged progress. After he had passed her with a careless glance at the small, swift figure, she smelt coffee. He was carrying home a pound for his breakfast supply. That suddenly made her cry, though she did not know why. That familiar odor of home and the wontedness of life made her isolation on her little atom of the unusual more pitiful. The man turned round sharply when she sobbed. "Hullo! what's the matter, sis?" he called back, in a pleasant, hoarse voice. Ellen did not answer; she fled as if she had wings on her feet. The man had many children of his own, and was accustomed to their turbulence over trifles. He kept on, thinking that there was a sulky child who had been sent on an errand against her will, that it was not late, and she was safe enough on that road. He resumed his calculation as to whether his income would admit of a new coal-stove that winter. He was a workman in a factory, with one accumulative interest in life--coal-stoves. He bought and traded and swapped coal-stoves every winter with keenest enthusiasm. Now he had one in his mind which he had just viewed in a window with the rapture of an artist. It had a little nickel statuette on the top, and that quite crowded Ellen out of his mind, which had but narrow accommodations.

So Ellen kept on unmolested, though her heart was beating loud with fright. When she came into the brilliantly lighted stretch of Main Street, which was the business centre of the city, her childish mind was partly diverted from herself. Ellen had not been down town many times of an evening, and always in hand of her hurrying father or mother. Now she had run away and cut loose from all restrictions of time; there was an eternity for observation before her, with no call in-doors in prospect. She stopped at the first bright shop window, and suddenly the exultation of freedom was over the child. She tasted the sweets of rebellion and disobedience. She had stood before that window once before of an evening, and her aunt Eva had been with her, and one of her young men friends had come up behind, and they had gone on, the child dragging backward at her aunt's hand. Now she could stand as long as she wished, and stare and stare, and drink in everything which her childish imagination craved, and that was much. The imagination of a child is often like a voracious maw, seizing upon all that comes within reach, and producing spiritual indigestions and assimilations almost endless in their effects upon the growth. This window before which Ellen stood was that of a market: a great expanse of plate-glass framing a crude study in the clearest color tones. It takes a child or an artist to see a picture without the intrusion of its second dimension of sordid use and the gross reflection of humanity.

Ellen looked at the great shelf laid upon with flesh and vegetables and fruits with the careless precision of a kaleidoscope, and did not for one instant connect anything thereon with the ends of physical appetite, though she had not had her supper. What had a meal of beefsteak and potatoes and squash served on the little white-laid table at home to do with those great golden globes which made one end of the window like the remove from a mine, those satin-smooth spheres, those cuts as of red and white marble? She had eaten apples, but these were as the apples of the gods, lying in a heap of opulence, with a precious light-spot like a ruby on every outward side. The turnips affected her imagination like ivory carvings: she did not recognize them for turnips at all. She never afterwards believed them to be turnips; and as for cabbages, they were green inflorescences of majestic bloom. There is one position from which all common things can be seen with reflections of preciousness, and Ellen had insensibly taken it. The window and the shop behind were illuminated with the yellow glare of gas, but the glass was filmed here and there with frost, which tempered it as with a veil. In the background rosy-faced men in white frocks were moving to and fro, customers were passing in and out, but they were all glorified to the child. She did not see them as butchers, and as men and women selling and buying dinners.

However, all at once everything was spoiled, for her fairy castle of illusion or a higher reality was demolished, and that not by any blow of practicality, but by pity and sentiment. Ellen was a woman-child, and suddenly she struck the rock upon which women so often wreck or effect harbor, whichever it may be. All at once she looked up from the dazzling mosaic of the window and saw the dead partridges and grouse hanging in their rumpled brown mottle of plumage, and the dead rabbits, long and stark, with their fur pointed with frost, hanging in a piteous headlong company, and all her delight and wonder vanished, and she came down to the hard actualities of things. "Oh, the poor birds!" she cried out in her heart. "Oh, the poor birds, and the poor bunnies!"

Just at that moment, when the sudden rush of compassion and indignation had swollen her heart to the size of a woman's, and given it the aches of one, when her eyes were so dilated with the sight of helpless injury and death that they reflected the mystery of it and lost the outlook of childhood, when her pretty baby mouth was curved like an inverted bow of love with the impulse of tears, Cynthia Lennox came up the street and stopped short when she reached her.

Suddenly Ellen felt some one pressing close to her, and, looking up, saw a woman, only middle-aged, but whom she thought very old, because her hair was white, standing looking at her very keenly with clear, light-blue eyes under a high, pale forehead, from which the gray hair was combed uncompromisingly back. The woman had been a beauty once, of a delicate, nervous type, and had a certain beauty now, a something which had endured like the fineness of texture of a web when its glow of color has faded. Her black garments draped her with sober richness, and there was a gleam of dark fur when the wind caught her cloak. A small tuft of ostrich plumes nodded from her bonnet. Ellen smelt flowers vaguely, and looked at the lady's hand, but she did not carry any.

"Whose little girl are you?" Cynthia Lennox asked, softly, and Ellen did not answer. "Can't you tell me whose little girl you are?" Cynthia Lennox asked again. Ellen did not speak, but there was the swift flicker of a thought over her face which told her name as plainly as language if the woman had possessed the skill to interpret it.

"Ellen Brewster--Ellen Brewster is my name," Ellen said to herself very hard, and that was how she endured the reproach of her own silence.

The woman looked at her with surprise and admiration that were fairly passionate. Ellen was a beautiful child, with a face like a white flower. People had always turned to look after her, she was so charming, and had caused her mothers heart to swell with pride. "The way everybody we met has stared after that child to-day!" she would whisper her husband when she brought Ellen home from some little expedition; then the two would look at the little one's face with the one holy vanity of the world. Ellen wore to-night the little white shawl which her father had caught up when he carried her over to her grandmother's. She held it tightly together under her chin with one tiny hand, and her face looked out from between the soft folds with the absolute purity of curve and color of a pearl.

"Oh, you darling!" said the woman, suddenly; "you darling!" and Ellen shrank away from her. "Don't be afraid, dear," said Cynthia Lennox. "Don't be afraid, only tell me who you are. What is your name, dear?" But Ellen remained silent; only, as she shrank aloof, her eyes grew wild and bright with startled tears, and her sweet baby mouth quivered piteously. She wanted to run, but the habit of obedience was so strong upon her little mind that she feared to do so. This strange woman seemed to have gotten her in some invisible leash.

"Tell me what your name is, darling," said the woman, but she might as well have importuned a flower. Ellen was proof against all commands in that direction. She suddenly felt the furry sweep of the lady's cloak against her cheek, and a nervous, tender arm drawing her close, though she strove feebly to resist. "You are cold, you have nothing on but this little white shawl, and perhaps you are hungry. What were you looking in this window for? Tell me, dear, where is your mother? She did not send you on an errand, such a little girl as you are, so late on such a cold night, with no more on than this?"

A tone of indignation crept into the lady's voice.

"No, mother didn't send me," Ellen said, speaking for the first time.

"Then did you run away, dear?" Ellen was silent. "Oh, if you did, darling, you must tell me where you live, what your father's name is, and I will take you home. Tell me, dear. If it is far, I will get a carriage, and you shall ride home. Tell me, dear."

There was an utmost sweetness of maternal persuasion in Cynthia Lennox's voice; Ellen was swayed by it as a child might have been swayed by the magic pipe of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. She half yielded to her leading motion, then she remembered. "No," she cried out, with a sob of utter desolation. "No, no."

"Why not, dear?"

"They don't want; they don't want. No, no!"

"They don't want you? Your own father and mother don't want you? Darling, what is the matter?" But Ellen was dumb again. She stood sobbing, with a painful restraint, and pulling futilely from the lady's persuasive hand. But it ended in the mastery of the child. Suddenly Cynthia Lennox gathered her up in her arms under her great fur-lined cloak, and carried her a little farther down the street, then across it to a dwelling-house, one of the very few which had withstood the march of business blocks on this crowded main street of the provincial city. A few people looked curiously at the lady carrying such a heavy, weeping child, but she met no one whom she knew, and the others looked indifferently away after a second backward stare. Cynthia Lennox was one to bear herself with such dignity over all jolts of circumstances that she might almost convince others of her own exemption from them. Her mental bearing disproved the evidence of the senses, and she could have committed a crime with such consummate self-poise and grace as to have held a crowd in abeyance with utter distrust of their own eyes before such unquestioning confidence in the sovereignty of the situation. Cynthia Lennox had always had her own way except in one respect, and that experience had come to her lately.

Though she was such a slender woman, she seemed to have great strength in her arms, and she bore Ellen easily and as if she had been used to such a burden. She wrapped her cloak closely around the child.

"Don't be afraid, darling," she kept whispering. Ellen panted in bewilderment, and a terror which was half assuaged by something like fascination.

She was conscious of a soft smother of camphor, in which the fur-lined cloak had lain through the summer, and of that flower odor, which was violets, though she did not know it. Only the wild American scentless ones had come in little Ellen's way so far.

She felt herself carried up steps, then a door was thrown open, and a warm breath of air came in her face, and the cloak was tossed back, and she was set softly on the floor. The hall in which she stood seemed very bright; she blinked and rubbed her eyes.

The lady stood over her, laughing gently, and when the child looked up at her, seemed much younger than she had at first, very young in spite of her white hair. There was a soft red on her cheek; her lips looked full and triumphant with smiles; her eyes were like stars. An emotion of her youth which had never become dulled by satisfaction had suddenly blossomed out on her face, and transformed it. An unassuaged longing may serve to preserve youth as well as an undestroyed illusion; indeed, the two are one. Cynthia Lennox looked at the child as if she had been a young mother, and she her first-born; triumph over the future, and daring for all odds, and perfect faith in the kingdom of joy were in her look. Had she nursed one child like Ellen to womanhood, and tasted the bitter in the cup, she would not have been capable of that look, and would have been as old as her years. She threw off her cloak and took off her bonnet, and the light struck her hair and made it look like silver. A brooch in the laces at her throat shone with a thousand hues, and as Ellen gazed at it she felt curiously dull and dizzy. She did not resist at all when the lady removed her little white shawl, but stared at her with the look of some small and helpless thing in too large a grasp of destiny to admit of a struggle. "Oh, you darling!" Cynthia Lennox said, and stooped and kissed her, and half carried her into a great, warm, dazzling room, with light reflected in long lines of gold from picture-frames on the wall, and now and then startling patches of lurid color blazing forth unmeaningly from the dark incline of their canvases, with gleams of crystal and shadows of bronze in settings of fretted ebony, with long swayings of rich draperies at doors and windows, a red light of fire in a grate, and two white lights, one of piano keys, the other of a flying marble figure in a corner, outlined clearly against dusky red. The light in this room was very dim. It was all beyond Ellen's imagination. The White North where the Norway spruces lived would not have seemed as strange to her as this. Neither would Bluebeard's Castle, nor the House that Jack Built, nor the Palace of King Solomon, nor the tent in which lived little Joseph in his coat of many colors, nor even the Garden of Eden, nor Noah's Ark. Her imagination had not prepared her for a room like this. She had formed her ideas of rooms upon her grandmother's and her mother's and the neighbors' best parlors, with their glories of crushed plush and gilt and onyx and cheap lace and picture-throws and lambrequins. This room was such a heterodoxy against her creed of civilization that it did not look beautiful to her as much as strange and bewildering, and when she was bidden to sit down in a little inlaid precious chair she put down her tiny hand and reflected, with a sense of strengthening of her household faith, that her grandmother had beautiful, smooth, shiny hair-cloth.

Cynthia Lennox pulled the chair close to the fire, and bade her hold out her little feet to the blaze to warm them well. "I am afraid you are chilled, darling," she said, and looked at her sitting there in her dainty little red cashmere frock, with her spread of baby-yellow hair over her shoulders. Then Ellen thought that the lady was younger than her mother; but her mother had borne her and nursed her, and suffered and eaten of the tree of knowledge, and tasted the bitter after the sweet; and this other woman was but as a child in the garden, though she was fairly old. But along with Ellen's conviction of the lady's youth had come a conviction of her power, and she yielded to her unquestioningly. Whenever she came near her she gazed with dilating eyes upon the blazing circle of diamonds at her throat.

When she was bidden, she followed the lady into the dining-room, where the glitter of glass and silver and the soft gleam of precious china made her think for a little while that she must be in a store. She had never seen anything like this except in a store, when she had been with her mother to buy a lamp-chimney. So she decided this to be a store, but she said nothing. She did not speak at all, but she ate her biscuits, and slice of breast of chicken, and sponge-cake, and drank her milk.

She had her milk in a little silver cup which seemed as if it might have belonged to another child; she also sat in a small high-chair, which made it seem as if another child had lived or visited in the house. Ellen became singularly possessed with this sense of the presence of a child, and when the door opened she would look around for her to enter, but it was always an old black woman with a face of imperturbable bronze, which caused her to huddle closer into her chair when she drew near.

There were not many colored people in the city, and Ellen had never seen any except at Long Beach, where she had sometimes gone to have a shore dinner with her mother and Aunt Eva. Then she always used to shrink when the black waiter drew near, and her mother and aunt would be convulsed with furtive mirth. "See the little gump," her mother would say in the tenderest tone, and look about to see if others at the other tables saw how cunning she was--what a charming little goose to be afraid of a colored waiter.

Ellen saw nobody except the lady and the black woman, but she was still sure that there was a child in the house, and after supper, when she was taken up-stairs to bed, she peeped through every open door with the expectation of seeing her.

But she was so weary and sleepy that her curiosity and capacity for any other emotion was blunted. She had become simply a little, tired, sleepy animal. She let herself be undressed; she was not even moved to much self-pity when the lady discovered the cruel bruise on her delicate knee, and kissed it, and dressed it with a healing salve. She was put into a little night-gown which she knew dreamily belonged to that other child, and was laid in a little bedstead which she noted to be made of gold, with floating lace over the head.

She sleepily noted, too, that there were flowers on the walls, and more floating lace over the bureau. This room did not look so strange to her as the others; she had somehow from the treasures of her fancy provided the family of big bears and little bears with a similar one. Then, too, one of the neighbors, Mrs. George Crocker, had read many articles in women's papers relative to the beautifying of homes, and had furnished a wonderful chamber with old soap-boxes and rolls of Japanese paper which was a sort of a cousin many times removed of this. When she was in bed the lady kissed her, and called her darling, and bade her sleep well, and not be afraid, she was in the next room, and could hear if she spoke. Then she stood looking at her, and Ellen thought that she must be younger than Minnie Swensen, who lived on her street, and wore a yellow pigtail, and went to the high-school. Then she closed her heavy eyes, and forgot to cry about her poor father and mother; still, there was, after all, a hurt about them down in her childish heart, though a great wave of new circumstances had rolled on her shore and submerged for the time her memory and her love, even, she was so feeble and young.

She slept very soundly, and awoke only once, about two o'clock in the morning. Then a passing lantern flashed into the chamber into her eyes, and woke her up, but she only sighed and stretched drowsily, then turned her little body over with a luxurious roll and went to sleep again.

It was poor Andrew Brewster's lantern which flashed in her eyes, for he was out with a posse of police and sympathizing neighbors and friends searching for his lost little girl. He was frantic, and when he came under the gas-lights from time to time the men that saw him shuddered; they would not have known him, for almost the farthest agony of which he was capable had changed his face.

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Chapter IIIBy the next morning all the city was in a commotion over little Ellen's disappearance. Woods on the outskirts were being searched, ponds were being dragged, posters with a stare of dreadful meaning in large characters of black and white were being pasted all over the fences and available barns, and already three of the local editors had been to the Brewster house to obtain particulars and photographs of the missing child for reproduction in the city papers.The first train from Boston brought two reporters representing great dailies.Fanny Brewster, white-cheeked, with the rasped redness of tears around her eyes and
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Chapter IOn the west side of Ellen's father's house was a file of Norway spruce-trees, standing with a sharp pointing of dark boughs towards the north, which gave them an air of expectancy of progress.Every morning Ellen, whose bedroom faced that way, looked out with a firm belief that she would see them on the other side of the stone wall, advanced several paces towards their native land. She had no doubt of their ability to do so; their roots, projecting in fibrous sprawls from their trunks, were their feet, and she pictured them advancing with wide trailings, and rustlings as
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